Umno polls show that what goes around comes around

Bridget Welsh
Oct 20, 2013

COMMENT The results are in. Despite the last-minute swing to Mukhriz Mahathir due to the sympathy factor associated with the false reporting of vote-buying and buoyed by his father’s support, the count clearly shows that Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s personal influence in Umno has waned.

In fact, when one looks at the election of the 25 spots for the Supreme Council, Mahathir loyalists have lost badly. The question arises whether this party election indeed spells the end of an era, a changing of the guard of sorts within Umno.

While personal loyalties may have moved on and Mahathir’s influence has been checked, his legacy persists within the party and given the competitiveness of the results, Mahathir’s own role will continue to shadow Najib’s premiership.

A closer look

Mahathir’s son Mukhriz came within striking distance of Najib’s cousin and closest ally, Hishammuddin Hussein, in the keenly fought contest for a vice-presidency.

In the last 24 hours before polling, sympathy swung strongly in favour of Mukhriz who was seen to be unfairly reported in the media for indulging in money politics (an issue that will likely be debated in the days ahead) and not being picked as the ‘chosen one’ in the candidate list.

NONEUsing Umno reverse psychology, Mahathir tapped into sympathy over the unfair attacks to boost his son’s chances – and Mukhriz (right) did come very close to winning.

For Hishammuddin, this election showed how vulnerable he is within the party, with the battle for the post-Najib leadership highly competitive. And for Mahathir, his goal of securing a position for his son failed – at least for now.

Mahathir loyalists also lost out in the Supreme Council. Out of the 25 spots, they can be seen to secure only two positions. Adding to those close to Mahathir’s ally, deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, this number increases to five, representing about one-fifth in the powerful council.

The composition of those elected can be seen as follows: 20% Mahathir-Muhyiddin loyalists, 24% Najib loyalists, 32% Abdullah Ahmad Badawi loyalists, 20% seen as both Abdullah and Najib camps, and another 4% independent.

Many of the Mahathir loyalists rode the wave of sympathy around his son into the Supreme Council. With Najib’s ability to appoint additional members to the Supreme Council, Mahathir’s position inside the existing hierarchy has been significantly marginalised.

The implication of this is that through the structures of power inside the system, Najib is unlikely to face a challenge, at least in the short term. Najib has clearly secured his position within Umno for now.

Abdullah’s victory

While the power of incumbency and position is one of the major factors influencing the results, the outcome must also be understand as a victory for Malaysia’s fifth premier, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Ironically on the day Abdullah formally retired from politics, his influence was at one of its heights. In fact, looking at the ties and loyalties of those elected into the Supreme Council, Abdullah was the main victor as his appointees, including his former personal secretary and now head of the Kepala Batas division, Reezal Merican Naina Merican, won.

NONEIn fact, Abdullah’s appointees make up the lion’s share of those elected into the Supreme Council. Najib has been proved to be politically adept in his choice to ally with Abdullah for the Umno polls. Those in the incumbent position put into office by Abdullah held on, echoing the ‘support the incumbents’ call that went out on the eve of polls.

The main loser was Mahathir, as the Najib-Abdullah alliance decimated those in the Mahathir camp. What goes around comes around, and yesterday Mahathir had to face the consequences of his ouster of Abdullah in the loss for his son.

Najib also had to pay a price for the Abdullah alliance. The premier was not able to bring in many of his own new loyalists, such as Raja Nong Chik Raja Zainal Abidin or Raja Ropiaah Raja Abdullah. The effect is that Najib’s base within Umno remains tied to Abdullah, as he is beholden to the immediate previous premier for his own position.

Najib does not have full reigns with regard to his loyalists and will use the power of supreme council appointments to strengthen his position. This will limit his ability to bring in his own agenda, as he will have to continue to accommodate existing interests.

Money and power

If Mahathir’s personal power is checked in the results, the conduct of the polls must be understood as decisively shaped by his legacy. While his son did not deserve the breadth of attacks he received over money politics, no one can deny that vote-buying remained a key dynamic in Umno polls.

Money exchanged hands and those with money and huge war chests won out. State warlords such as Mohd Ali Rustam and Isa Samad were annihilated as they could not keep up. These individuals were from small states, which also contributed to their losses. The legacy of money politics of Mahathir’s tenure lived on and ironically disadvantaged his son.

NONEBeyond the use of money, now honed as a tool for Umno victories, another myth is the democratic nature of the polls themselves. Delegates were ‘instructed’ as to who to vote for by their leaders. In some cases on the eve of polls, the final list of candidates were not provided to the delegates, as the focus was on who was on the selected list rather than the complete candidate list.

This election was a top-down affair as Umno delegates were expected to follow the usual pattern of following their leaders.

There are other real gripes about the election from the delegates themselves – the lack of transparency and other problems associated with the vote count, the fairness of the mechanism for complaints, the use of state resources in campaigning, the role of the media and more.

These factors are familiar. The Umno polls were marred by legitimate concerns over fairness. In substance, the power of the delegates to shape the results was checked by the implementation of the new electoral process.

Skewed ‘electoral college’ system

One of the ironies in the Umno elections involves the unfairness of the electoral system for the polls themselves – the ‘electoral college’.

As Umno has tied power to parliament constituencies, which are malapportioned in favour of rural areas and East Malaysia, the effect of the structural problems in Malaysia’s electoral system was replicated in the Umno polls.

Sabah has the advantage due to its sizable number of parliamentary seats. The same could be said of Johor. These states voted decisively for Hishammuddin over Mukhriz. This is yet another irony of the Mahathir legacy – his decision on where to place the constituencies came back to haunt him.

The fair share of Sabahans in the Supreme Council line-up, including Bung Mokhtar Radin and Abdul Rahman Dahlan, can also be seen as a product of the regional influence of states that have been given more than their fair portion of parliamentary seats.

The fact is that it is not the location of Umno members that has shaped the outcome, but the location of the parliamentary seats. This brings up the reality that the Umno polls effectively disempowered the votes of its members in the places where they are in the largest number, especially Selangor.

Consider the case of Titiwangsa, which has one of the largest number of branches. It has one vote, the same as that of Padang Besar in Perlis, which has a handful of branches. The Umno polls were based on the fact that each parliamentary seat is given one vote in the national elections.

In places such as Shah Alam where many Perkasa supporters live, the voices of many hardliners were muted. This hurt Mahathir loyalists in the party election, but more fundamentally it illustrated how the undemocratic practices of creating a malapportioned system works.

The delegates in Umno did not have equal power and in rural areas they had considerably more power than others. Those in urban areas – not just voters but Umno members – have less electoral influence. This is highly undemocratic, and it showcases the political marginalisation of groups within Umno itself.

Expect Mahathir to strike back

So, what will happen when the dust settles? There will be an assessment of the undemocratic dynamics of the Umno polls, from the top-down dictates and financial advantage of incumbents to the unfair electoral system.

There will also be an acknowledgment of Najib’s adept political decisions, but the appreciation that he is checked by his alliances and the constraints they have on his power. He is in charge but is beholden to the past, especially the immediate past prime minister, Abdullah. His scope to make decisions is limited. Incumbency and the status quo won out.

NONEOne must appreciate that the impact of the decisions to secure the Umno leadership by Najib – the introduction of the Bumiputera Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy, persistence of the use of money to woo supporters, the reversal of the Internal Security Act repeal and the racial attacks on non-Malays/Muslims have all left a mark that cannot be easily redressed. The cost of this Najib victory in substantive terms has been extremely high.

What is unknown is how Mahathir and his loyalists will react. There is anger and disappointment. For some, there is even a sense of betrayal. The pendulum will surely swing back, as those who have lost are expected to strike back.

Mahathir has shown in the past that he is not one who gives up easily and often responds in anger. The post-Umno election now awaits his response, as Malaysia remains locked in an ongoing focus of shoring up political power. Mahathir will likely use tools outside the party such as the media to make his views known.

In looking at the results, the Mahathir legacy in Malaysian politics was evident in the polls themselves, and his role in politics is likely to persist despite the direct losses suffered by his family and loyalists. Put simply, Najib will have to continue to watch his back, knowing that what goes around comes around.


DR BRIDGET WELSH is associate professor of political science at Singapore Management University. Bridget can be reached at [email protected].

  1. #1 by Noble House on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 3:36 am

    Umno’s history has been tainted with such undemocratic and unlawful practices during the tenure of Mahathir from 1981 to 2003 and until today. They blended well to form the culture and lifeblood in the Malay nationalist party.

    With all the President’s men, Najib may appear as the “Winner takes all” in a high stake poker game with his nemesis. But wait until you see Mahathir comes out with all guns blazing in Rambo style!

    We have a very angry old man here!

  2. #2 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 7:53 am

    RoS!!!! What are you waiting for? Your mamak will order you to force umno to have a party re-election soon. Let’s see how those lapdogs react.

  3. #3 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 8:58 am

    Najib’s “survival” and “stronger hold” is an illusion. The entire political discourse of UMNO is moronic in the first place – that between the Insincere (Fake & Phony) Vs the Ultra-conservatives. Its no debate at all but simple raw fight for power.

    Only reason why Najib “survived” is because Mahathir let him. The way the scrutiny and debate had gotten, a Mukhriz win at any cost would have meant the end of Najib and wrecked havoc in the party..

    Mahathir is far from done. You can almost bet Mukrhiz will be featured prominently all the time going forward, putting him as leading candidate to replace Najib soon enough..

  4. #4 by lee tai king (previously dagen) on Tuesday, 22 October 2013 - 9:28 am

    Errrr … umno.



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