Unfazed by scandals, Malaysia’s old party seeks win in polls

Nov 9, 2022, 7:07 PM | Updated: 8:01 pm

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan National (National Front) coalition Presiden...

United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and Barisan National (National Front) coalition President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, front left, and caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, front right, wave coalition flags during an event naming general election candidates at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Nov. 1, 2022. Eyeing a strong comeback in a crowded election race on Nov. 19, UMNO touted "stability and prosperity" in a manifesto laden with populist measures from tax cuts and cash aids to some reforms. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

(AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — The playbook is the same for Malaysia’s grand old party.

Eyeing a strong comeback in a crowded election race on Nov. 19, the United Malays National Organization touted “stability and prosperity” in a manifesto laden with populist measures from tax cuts and cash aids to some reforms.

Once an omnipotent force credited with developing and modernizing Malaysia, anger over government corruption led to its unimaginable defeat in 2018 polls. It bounced back in 2020 as part of a new government, but ties with its allies soured and UMNO is seeking to regain its mandate.

In its favor is a fractured opposition and an electorate fed up with political turmoil, rising inflation and a slowing economy. On the flip side, UMNO faces a trust deficit after its top leaders were charged with corruption. It has failed to shed its patronage and rent-seeking culture, and internal bickering presents a challenge. There is also a potential public backlash for calling an early election despite risks of floods from monsoon rains.

The reform drive within the party has taken a backseat after it reclaimed the government just 22 months following its electoral defeat, said Amir Fareed Rahim, director of strategy at public affairs and political risk consultancy KRA Group.

“The (UMNO) faces at the top are more or less still the same, which means there are still negative perception issues and trust deficit with the public,” he said.

UMNO Ieads the Barisan Nasional, or the National Front coalition, that has ruled since Malaysia’s independence from Britain until 2018. It was the country’s de facto ruler, with UMNO president holding the post of prime minister.

The watershed 2018 polls sparked hopes of reforms as once-powerful UMNO leaders were jailed or hauled to court for graft. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak became the first Malaysian leader imprisoned, over a case linked to the massive looting of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad state investment fund that led to his party’s ouster. Najib’s wife is also battling a 10-year sentence on separate graft charges.

But just as astounding as its defeat was UMNO’s swift return to power in early 2020 after defections led the reformist ruling alliance to crumble.

UMNO’s frenemy pact with two Malay parties that all vie for support of ethnic Malay voters saw continuous turmoil. In all, Malaysia had three prime ministers since 2018. In the end, Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob caved in to pressure from UMNO and dissolved Parliament last month for snap polls.

Ismail, a lower-ranked official, was the first prime minister who wasn’t an UMNO leader, creating factions within the party. This was because UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is battling dozens of corruption charges and the party No. 2 wasn’t a federal lawmaker.

Opposition leaders have warned voters that Zahid, who led the push for early polls, is counting on his coalition’s win to get off the hook in his graft trial and take over as prime minister. Zahid has portrayed himself and Najib, who faces several more trials over the 1MDB saga, as victims of political persecution.

Although UMNO says Ismail will remain prime minister if it wins, Zahid has consolidated his power by dropping eight party strongmen aligned to Ismail from the polls. Even if Ismail stays on, critics say he will be a lame duck premier.

“The ambiguity over the premiership despite clarifications from UMNO leaders is definitely an ammunition that is being used rather effectively by the opposition and may adversely impact BN’s electoral fortunes,” said Amir of KRA Group.

Zahid, 69, has dismissed the allegations as rivals’ desperate ploy. On Monday night, he unveiled his coalition’s manifesto as “pro-people, pro-reform, pro-development and prioritizing inclusion.”

Zahid promised absolute poverty will become a thing of the past because his government will give cash to poor households to ensure they have a basic monthly income of 2,208 ringgit ($466). The manifesto offers some political reform for more accountability, an overhaul of the education system and incentives to embrace diversity at school and workplace.

Malays form two-thirds of Malaysia’s 33 million people, and get privileges in jobs, contracts and education under a decades-old affirmative action program that has long alienated large Chinese and Indian minorities. Critics say the system has been abused by UMNO elites to enrich themselves, with large contracts often given directly to cronies.

“If UMNO still wins in 2022, it portrays the pervasiveness of UMNO’s patronage network,” said Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political analyst with the Science University of Malaysia. “What UMNO needs is a new generation of leaders whose conscience is not tied to the interests of UMNO’s self-perpetuating warlords.”

Some recent surveys have shown that UMNO hasn’t gained ground with Malays in several recent by-elections, and won in large part due to a low turnout of opposition voters.

While the opposition is a divided, UMNO also faces a split in its traditional Malay support base and some 6 million young new voters remain a wildcard.

Firebrand opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, also a Malay, is the main challenger. He was serving time on a sodomy charge he said was politically motivated when his Alliance of Hope won the 2018 polls, led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 after the victory, and Anwar was pardoned by the nation’s king shortly after. He was due to succeed Mahathir before their government collapsed. Anwar’s bloc is promising a reset in government policies to focus on merits and needs, rather than race, and good governance to plug billions of dollars it said was lost to corruption.

In addition, UMNO is also challenged by a Malay-based coalition headed by its previous allies in the government. Mahathir, 97, is running with his own motley Malay alliance to oust a corruption-tainted UMNO.

Political analyst Ahmad Fauzi and some others predicted a hung parliament that could see new alliances formed after the election.

“It is competitive and difficult to predict given the large fence-sitters. But it is UMNO’s to lose given it had all the upper hand in terms of timing to call the elections,” said Amir, the KRA analyst.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Arizona and New York attorneys feud over extraditing suspect...

Associated Press

Why Alvin Bragg and Rachel Mitchell are fighting over extraditing suspect in New York hotel killing

Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell says she isn't into extraditing a suspect due to her lack of faith in Manhattan’s top prosecutor.

1 day ago

A Gila monster is displayed at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Dec. 14, 2018. A 34-year-old Color...

Associated Press

Colorado man dies after being bitten by pet Gila monster

A Colorado man has died after being bitten by his pet Gila monster in what would be a rare death by one of the desert lizards if the creature's venom turns out to have been the cause.

2 days ago

Police clear the area following a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football Super Bowl celebr...

Associated Press

1 dead, many wounded after shooting at Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade

One person died after 22 people were hit by gunfire in a shooting at the end of the Kansas Chiefs' Super Bowl victory celebration Wednesday.

9 days ago

This image from House Television shows House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., banging the gavel after h...

Associated Press

GOP-led House impeaches Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas — by one vote — over border management

Having failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas the first time, House Republicans are determined to try again Tuesday.

10 days ago

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Kenya's Defense Minister Aden Duale, left, listen during...

Associated Press

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized with bladder issue

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized following symptoms pointing to an “emergent bladder issue."

12 days ago

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church, stands with his wife, Victoria Osteen, as he conducts a...

Associated Press

Woman firing rifle killed by 2 off-duty officers at Houston’s Lakewood Church run by Joel Osteen

A woman entered the Texas megachurch of Joel Osteen and started shooting with a rifle Sunday and was killed by two off-duty officers.

12 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Fiesta Bowl Foundation

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade is excitingly upon us

The 51st annual Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe is upon us! The attraction honors Arizona and the history of the game.


Sanderson Ford

The best ways to honor our heroes on Veterans Day and give back to the community

Veterans Day is fast approaching and there's no better way to support our veterans than to donate to the Military Assistance Mission.


Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Unfazed by scandals, Malaysia’s old party seeks win in polls