UMNO & PKR PRESS THE PANIC BUTTONS: WHICH STATE IS MAHATHIR’S BERSATU GUNNING TO CONTROL – SELANGOR, PERAK, KEDAH?

I am currently doing a study on the newly formed Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). As background reading, I had to go through various literature on Umno, to help me understand the dynamics within the party and what happened to parties that broke out from Umno. Interestingly, the first Umno splinter party was established by no other than Umno’s founding President himself, Dato’ Onn Jaafar.

Umno traces its history to the anti-colonial movement in the early 1900s, which peaked in the 1940s when British proposed to set up the Malayan Union. In Johor, the effort was led by Onn, a respected Malay aristocrat who was also District Officer in Batu Pahat. He hosted the third national Malay Congress in Johor Bharu on 11 and 12 May 1946, and it was here that Umno was officially born. Onn was also declared as the founding President.

Under Onn’s leadership, Umno worked hard to oppose the Malayan Union. The British eventually relented, and, following negotiations with Umno and the Malay Rulers, they announced that Malayan Union will be replaced with the Federation of Malaya. Onn thus scored his first major political victory, and this encouraged him to think about what Umno should do next.

He started exploring two areas: navigating Malaya towards independence from Britain and getting Malaya’s various ethnic groups to work together. The independence agenda was adopted by Umno without much hesitation, although the speed at which independence should be fought for and the actual form of independence continued to be debated. But Onn faced tremendous backlash from Umno when he pushed for non-Malays to be accepted as equal members. The Malays did not want equality for all citizens.

Onn’s failure to persuade Umno to become a multiracial party led to his resignation from the Presidency as well as from the party in August 1951. Soon after that, on 16 September 1951, Onn launched a new and ambitiously non-communal Independence of Malaya Party (IMP), making it the first splinter party from Umno.

Despite being founded and led by a towering figure, the IMP failed to make any mark in national politics. Even in Onn’s home state of Johor he did not gain traction. Onn expected that Umno would be shaken following his departure and that Umno members would join him. That did not happen. Instead, Umno regrouped under the new leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra.

Additionally, during his tenure as President of Umno, Onn had several confrontations with the Malay Rulers. He was scathing is some of his attacks, and he was once even quoted as saying “We must find ways and means to end feudal rule” in an obvious reference to the Malay Rulers.

This created the impression that his IMP was an anti-Royal party, which was anathema to the popular sentiment among the Malays at that time. Onn’s criticisms against the Royals made him unpopular among some quarters of the Malay society.

Ultimately, the IMP failed to widen its support base and was dissolved by Onn in 1953.

Umno experienced several more break-ups over the next few decades and there are essentially two models adopted by the splinter parties.

First, just like the IMP described above, are the parties that were formed directly by Umno leaders and their followers immediately after they left the party, without sufficient widening of their bases to include more people from outside of the traditional Umno circle. Examples include the National Convention Party (Parti Perhimpunan Kebangsaan) that was formed in 1963 and the Parti Melayu Semangat 46, formed in 1989.

Second, there are parties that were formed as a result of the coming together of multiple additional forces in support of the departing Umno leaders. This includes PAS which was formed in 1951 by Islamists from inside and outside of Umno, and PKR in 1999 by Anwar Ibrahim following his sacking from Umno, after he successfully mobilised various civil society groups to support his agenda.

It is interesting to note that, nationally, the splinter parties that followed the second model have proven more successful in building their own support base. They gradually increased their strength over many years, and they are still strong until today.

On the other hand, none of the parties that followed the first model have created any real damage to Umno or made marks on our national politics. In fact, just like the IMP, all of them suffered electoral failures and were eventually dissolved.

PPBM falls more into the first model. It was formed by top Umno leaders almost immediately after they left the party. Yes, they did indeed consult with various groups before officially launching PPBM, but it is still essentially a party formed and led by former Umno members and leaders, planned to be a replacement of Umno.

This raises a question about the long-term sustainability of PPBM. If we go by history, the future looks very difficult for PPBM especially if they do not win Putrajaya or at least win control of a state. Without a power-base, they will find it difficult to survive. None of the parties that followed the path PPBM is taking now have survived in the long run.

This makes it extremely important for PPBM to gain significant wins in the upcoming elections. Their whole survival is at risk if they do not succeed this time.

(Wan Saiful Wan Jan is the chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, IDEAS and Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.)

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