KUALA LUMPUR – Unlike 2015’s Umno general assembly, this year’s meet will likely not be shrouded in uncertainty among the Malay nationalist party’s grassroots and supporters.

Two years ago, Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak had faced open attacks and hostilities from then deputy president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, and former president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — the latter the very person who had supported Najib when he took over as prime minister after the 2008 general elections.

Back then, some Umno divisions and branches even went so far as to publicly criticise the party leadership, which eventually led to the decision to disallow Muhyiddin from speaking at the Umno assembly.

Moving forward to the present, this year’s assembly will likely be a focused one; driven to prepare its members for the 14th general elections (GE14) which must be called by August next year.

With Muhyiddin, Dr Mahathir and their respective loyalists out of the picture and busy with their own issues of registering Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) before GE14, what can we expect from this year’s Umno assembly?

Closing ranks

Setting aside differences between party warlords and closing ranks before the GE14 will be the overarching theme for this year’s assembly, with observers believing that while any concerns can still be brought to the Umno leadership’s attention, it will be done quietly without much public fanfare.

“It’s overall a mobilising assembly, making sure that the rank and file are all gearing up for next GE, if any concern should express it but quietly so, so that corrective or redemptive steps can be taken to address them,” Oh Ei Sun, political analyst and principal adviser of Pacific Research Centre told Malay Mail.

And some party leaders and members are already taking steps to ensure that Najib’s leadership will not be challenged any time before GE14.

The Padang Rengas Umno division is set to table a motion in the upcoming assembly to make sure that the post of president and deputy president remains uncontested.

Umno Supreme Council member and Padang Rengas division chief Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz said recently the motion is aimed at ensuring that unity is maintained in the party in preparation for GE14.

“We don’t want this to happen and that’s why we want the top two positions to be decided now, so that when we face the elections, we are one,” The Star quoted Nazri as saying.

Umno’s own party election was supposed to have been held last year, but was postponed by 18 months to allow the party to prepare for the national polls.

“Even without this assembly, Najib’s position is much stronger compared to before, the major critics no longer with the party,” Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Head of Asian Studies Centre Faisal Hazis told Malay Mail.

He said that the party’s leadership main goal will be to prepare its grassroots ahead of GE14, besides bringing up issues on Malay rights and religion.

A man is pictured cleaning a section of the wall featuring the Umno logo at the Putra World Trade Centre, Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

A man is pictured cleaning a section of the wall featuring the Umno logo at the Putra World Trade Centre, Kuala Lumpur. — Picture by Miera Zulyana

Countering attacks

Umno’s annual assembly this year will also be focused on preparing its members to counter attacks by Opposition pact Pakatan Harapan (PH) and other critics, especially in issues of governance.

“It is a build up towards the 14th general election, unity, developing a winning mentality, addressing the needs of the people and highlighting the government’s efforts in helping people, and why they should choose Umno-Barisan Nasional and not Pakatan,” Special Affairs Department (Jasa) director and Umno Youth leader Tun Faisal Ismail Aziz said.

Tun Faisal said that there will specific topics which will be raised during the speeches by delegates and will revolve around issues concerning economics, politics, education and religion.

Umno Sungai Besar assemblyman Budiman Mohd Zohdi told Malay Mail that the party leadership will roll out “templates” of answers and rebuttals to the party’s grassroots in response to the attacks by PH.

“Our focus is targeting a two-thirds majority win, we are on attack mode against the opposition and the issues they raise, some of which is pure propaganda,” he said, citing the example of the rise of fuel prices and how that is being used by the opposition as ammunition against BN.

“So we will focus on rationalising the issues the opposition raises,” he added.

Centre for Policy Initiatives director Lim Teck Ghee said that the Umno assembly will likely be used as a platform to launch renewed attacks PPBM, Dr Mahathir and Muhyiddin—and will also be used to remind Malays of the country’s success under Umno’s continued leadership and dominance.

“Although these messages will dominate the speeches and be echoed in the the print media, the leadership must be aware that there is a deep under current of quiet Malay discontent which is not so easily taken in by the party’s showmanship and political grandstanding.

“How to win back the sizable Malay opposition will require action more than words and public posturing,” he said.

Cooperation with PAS

An issue which has been dangled before during Umno’s past assemblies and might see a return is the talk of political cooperation with one-time rivals PAS.

Any form of electoral cooperation between Umno and the Islamist party will be crucial especially since the latter poses a real threat to PH in the event of three-cornered fights.

“That is key. I am sure the call to strengthen working relations with PAS will be raised, as one of Umno’s key strategies in trying to defeat Umno is to consolidate Malay votes,” Faisal said.

Back in August, Umno information chief Tan Sri Annuar Musa said the Umno Supreme Council had given party president Najib the mandate to determine whether Umno should cooperate with PAS in the next general election

“For cooperation to be established, there must be consultation, understanding and so on. But, that does not mean that PAS will join Umno.

“If PAS wants to join Umno, it has to uphold BN policies like the other component parties,” he said back then, adding that the form of “cooperation” Umno had in mind is one which will benefit all parties especially those in PAS-ruled Kelantan.

But Faisal believes that the issue of political cooperation will likely be brought up subtly as not all Umno grassroots are keen on the idea.

“If there is cooperation with PAS, what does that mean? Giving up Umno seats?

“Najib needs to sell idea to Umno members [first],” he explained.

The Umno annual general assembly is from December 5 to December 9. Up to 5,800 delegates are expected to attend the five-day meeting.

– Malay Mail