Prime Minister Najib Razak goes into a final Umno pow wow this week before a crucial general election due by next August, hoping to unite the party after two years of fending off critics, and entrenching his own position despite a graft scandal that made global headlines.
But party sources told The Straits Times that Mr Najib’s move to close ranks may come up against intense lobbying by ambitious leaders ahead of Umno’s own polls to be held soon after Malaysians go to the national ballot.
“The campaigning has already begun because the party polls are supposed to be held by the middle of next year. The assembly will be the best platform as all the grassroots leaders are there,” said an aide to a top official, adding that jockeying went as high as the vice-presidential level.
Umno secretary-general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said unity will be the main theme when this year’s five-day general assembly, known by its Malay acronym PAU, kicks off.
The leadership will call on members to “showcase our accomplishments” in government ahead of the general election, he said last week.
With the graft scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd seen in Umno as having little impact on the looming general election, its leaders now face the challenge of tempering public anger over cost of living issues, including the high prices of homes.
The party needs to show its main voting base, the Malay majority, that only the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government can defend their Malay privileges and the primacy of Islam.
“Is Umno very ugly? Is Umno very dirty? Umno is being punished by the court of public opinion,” deputy president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi asked undergraduates last Thursday.
His answer: “Umno is the last bastion for Muslims and Malays in this country. Our record shows our achievement and success.”
Burnishing the Najib administration’s credentials will be crucial as BN faces the unprecedented challenge of an opposition led by a former premier and two ex-deputy prime ministers – Anwar Ibrahim and Muhyiddin Yassin.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia for 22 years, chairs the Pakatan Harapan pact.
Mr Najib will be hoping Umno’s machinery can convince voters that his nine-year administration trumps Dr Mahathir’s track record.