THOUGH it is an Umno general assembly, the country’s largest party is expected to dwell a lot on its rivals PAS, DAP and its former president-now-nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Equally important will be the president-cum-prime minister’s speech to the roughly three million Umno members on how the economy will improve next year, analyst Hisommuddin Bakar said.
Good news about the economy will be an important part of Umno’s campaign message to quell anger over stagnant wages among rural working-class Malay Muslims, who form the party’s core voters.
These four elements will determine whether Umno’s uninterrupted rule of Malaysia since Merdeka 60 years ago will continue, as the country gears up for the 14th general election next year.
Analysts and veteran politicians have pointed out that the stakes are exceptionally high for Umno in the next election – likely to be called in March or April next year.
Umno faces a resurgent Pakatan Harapan coalition, which includes Dr Mahathir and his party Bersatu which is made up of ex-Umno members who are threatening Umno in the 87 parliamentary seats it controls. About 18 of those seats were marginally won with majorities of less than 2,000 votes.
The last time Umno faced a general election such as this was in 1990 and 1999, when internal schisms led to breakaway factions that formed new political parties – Semangat 46 in 1990 and PKR (then called Parti Keadilan Nasional) in 1998.
In both instances, Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition it leads, lost control of state governments. It also lost swatches of parliamentary seats in Malay heartland states.
But in those elections, Umno could count on votes from non-Malay voters in the peninsula to return its partners MCA, MIC and Gerakan into power, thus giving BN enough seats in parliament to form the government.
In this election, Umno cannot depend on its BN allies. As surveys from Merdeka Center have pointed out, most Chinese Malaysian voters who make up about 29.68% of the electorate will likely not support BN.
About half of Indian voters are likely to support PH while Sabah – another BN fixed deposit – is in the midst of an anti-BN, pro-local party wave, said Hisommuddin of the Ilham Centre.
“The Malay vote is crucial in the next elections, and this assembly is about building up the walls on all of Umno’s 87 fortresses at the parliamentary level,” said Hisommuddin.
“A 5% to 10% swing of votes will mean these fortresses will fall and be the end of BN rule.”
Rebels and the repentant
The fates of PAS, DAP and Dr Mahathir are intertwined and together impact Umno’s Malay-Muslim vote. Party president and Prime Minister Najib Razak’s official policy speech on December 7, will touch on all three subjects and how they fit into the party’s strategy going into GE14.
In last year’s assembly, Umno made DAP into an effective bogeyman to play on Malay fears that the community will lose out and that the country will be controlled by Chinese Malaysians if they voted for PH.
The opposition coalition comprises DAP, PAS splinter part Amanah, PKR and Bersatu.
Umno leaders have consistently tarred PH as being secretly run by DAP.
An Umno source said that message would be repeated this year. It is also likely that a special video on the DAP will be played during the president’s speech.
How the president frames DAP’s relationship with Dr Mahathir and Bersatu will also be a key signal.
Over the past months, Najib has been on the warpath against his one-time mentor, treating him and Bersatu as staunch enemies of Umno and the Malay community.
But another party source said that the strident language would be tempered with a message that it was not too late for these rebels to repent and return to Umno.
That last part is meant for Bersatu’s rank-and-file, made up largely of ex-Umno members, who may have been influenced by Dr Mahathir’s decision to leave the party in 2015.
“Umno has always accepted its rebels with open arms, such as all the ex-PKR and Semangat 46 members who returned to us after being in the Opposition. The same is expected to happen with Bersatu,” said a source.
Such signals on Bersatu, said Selangor Umno grassroots leader Al Hafizi Abu Bakar, were what Umno’s members have been waiting for.
“We are waiting to see whether there will announcements on how we are going to make peace again with Bersatu and maybe even soothe Dr Mahathir’s feelings,” said the Kuala Langat Umno Youth leader.
The ‘deal’ with PAS
Although speculation has been rife about a potential PAS-Umno electoral pact, it is, however, not expected to happen any time before the general election.
Certain Umno leaders, such as information chief Annuar Musa, have talked about PAS-Umno cooperation but what form it will take has been vague.
A party source said Umno’s strategy was to be friendly with PAS but only so that it keeps away from PH.
PAS worked with Semangat 46 and PKR during eras when Umno was fond of attacking it, such as during Dr Mahathir’s 22-year term as president.
Umno’s current strategy with PAS, which commands significant support in the Malay heartland states, will split the anti-Umno vote, the source said.
Analysts have said that historically, BN always wins when it contests against more than one Opposition party.
Hisommuddin said PAS stood to lose more than 30% of its supporters if it ties up with Umno. Another study by Institut Darul Ehsan in Kelantan showed that PAS could lose up to 60% of its support if it did so.
The same thing can occur in Umno. Its Supreme Council member Nazri Aziz had said that older Umno members would also feel slighted if the party teamed up with PAS.
“Many grassroots members still feel the sting of being labelled infidels by PAS. They’ve seen families and communities torn apart by how PAS labelled them infidels (in the 1980s).”
An electoral pact with PAS would mean that Umno would give up seats to the Islamist party and mount straight fights against PH. That is a scenario that benefits PH, said Hisommudin.