Malaysian politics reached a climax on 9 December 2017 as the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — the backbone of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition — beat the war drums to go into battle to face the impending general election, which is widely expected to be held in early 2018, but could be called as late as June.
The dominant narrative emerging from the 14th annual UMNO General Assembly is that this election is ‘do-or-die’. BN must not only ‘win big’ but must snatch back the two-thirds supermajority it lost in 2008 and failed to recover in 2013.
But is the narrative of a ‘snatch-back’ a reflection of UMNO’s growing confidence that it will retain power? Or is it chest-thumping to whip up the morale of the party in the face of public unease with the shocks and setbacks of recent years?
Amid the current flux in politics, two significant views are emerging.
The first is that UMNO is indeed recovering after the outbreak of the 1MDB scandal in 2015. The knock-on effects on the BN coalition of 1MDB — a scandal in which up to US$800 million worth of funds has been allegedly siphoned off from a state-owned fund — are obvious: the man in the eye of the storm is Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Razak.
Due to the crisis, the UMNO has split again, leading to the rise of the breakaway Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu). This new party has among its ranks former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir, who was formerly chief minister of the important Malay belt state of Kedah.
The UMNO split — the fifth in its 71-year history — has altered the national political landscape. Bersatu has entered into an unprecedented alliance with the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition which is spiritually led by the jailed former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim. This has produced a reconciliation between allies-turned-foes Dr Mahathir and Mr Anwar, and created an alliance of one former premier, two former deputy premiers and at least one former chief minister in common opposition to Najib.
But despite the split in the ruling party, the expanding opposition alliance and the growing international spillover from the 1MDB scandal, Prime Minister Najib seems secure for now. The UMNO assembly further entrenched the positions of Mr Najib and his deputy Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi with the passing of a resolution that prevents a contest for their posts when UMNO’s party elections are held, which could be as soon as next year.
By contrast, there is the second view that Mr Najib is actually on shakier ground than he would like to admit and that the coming general election will indeed be a ‘do-or-die’ electoral battle of which the outcome will be critical for his survival. If BN wins again, it could well mean the breakup of the PH opposition given its current state of fragility.
But if for some reason voters grow tired of all the political shenanigans and decide to vote against UMNO and BN, Mr Najib could end up in deep trouble. The stakes are indeed very high for Najib Razak
While UMNO leaders have touted the importance of winning back their two-thirds majority, the reality is that many are sceptical this will happen. Even UMNO leaders talked about the supermajority goal with some reluctance. Mr Najib spoke about the critical need to win over the third group of fence-sitters — the ‘persuadable voters’ who are ‘significant to BN’. In other words, UMNO is not too sure of a win.
There are at least two key sources of disgruntlement towards the UMNO-led ruling coalition — the rising cost of living and the issues of ethics and governance. There are also undercurrents of unhappiness that cut across the spectrum of voters, including the political and business elite as well as civil servants.
But at this point, many Malaysians are resigned to more of the same. They are so used to the political longevity and entrenched power of UMNO that they might not want to rock the boat. They may want the opposition to take over but are afraid of the unknown. Hence many will spoil their vote or will stay at home and thereby avoid an excruciating dilemma at the ballot box.
Regime change may not be the best outcome for Malaysian politics, but for those who are troubled by what they perceive as the growing rot within the system, a regime change is not so scary any longer. Voters may be prepared to try out a new government and give it a chance to do things differently. The role of an effective and respected opposition is crucial in this regard.
If the alternative government delivers, it will be voted back to power. If it fails, voters can bring UMNO and BN back to rule. A stint out of power may not be bad for UMNO’s soul as it could lead to serious introspection and much needed rejuvenation.
This model of politics is not new. There have been long-serving political parties that have been voted out but returned to power in better shape, such as Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party. Other countries where dominant parties have been dethroned but play influential oppositionist roles instead are Indonesia’s Golkar, Taiwan’s Kuomintang and the Indian National Congress.
Is this the crossroads to which Mr Najib has intimated? Or will the long-ruling UMNO-led coalition be returned to power yet again?
Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.