Can Zahid lead UMNO to rise from the ashes, relish its past glory again?

AS UMNO’s much awaited general assembly kickstarted yesterday (Jan 11) at the Kuala Lumpur World Trade Centre, a few of the party’s leaders were conspicuously absent at the closed-door presidential briefing that was held ahead of the four-day event.

Among those who were not spotted at the briefing were UMNO vice president Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein and Khairy Jamaluddin.

While UMNO president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has recently called for self-reflection among party members for them to unite in their thinking and efforts to restore the party’s clout that used to be the tower of strength for the race, religion and nation, the Bagan Datuk MP himself is the face of persisting stigma – that of corruption – which UMNO faces.

This is notwithstanding the fact that he has consolidated his position in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government with a transformed ‘Mr Clean’ image via-a-vis two portfolios – as Deputy Prime Minister and Rural and Regional Development Minister.

“The party has long needed meaningful, substantive reform as its leaders have made UMNO about themselves rather than the country or its members,” observed Bridget Welsh who is an honorary research associate of the University of Nottingham, Malaysia’s Asia Research Institute (UNARI).

“Defending and empowering leaders with corruption and other criminal charges has done the party no favours. Leaders holding the party captive for themselves has caused harm. The grassroots of UMNO have eroded.”

Welsh who expressed her view in a Malaysiakini commentary also attributed ultimate quest for survival by the party’s leaders as a costly affair.

“The decision to ally themselves with PAS only served to empower the Islamist party, bringing them into the federal government in the Sheraton Move. The alliance with PAS in 2019 also reinforced conditions that widened ethnoreligious divisions,” she wrote.

“The escalation of racialised rhetoric after 2018 now haunts the party, as they no longer control the Malay narrative and have lost the mantle of being the defender of the Malay community.”

Elsewhere, the birth of Bersatu which emanated from the response of UMNO leadership to the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Bhd) has been destructive with the former winning many of the party’s core seats. The sacking of eventually Bersatu president and Perikatan Nasional (PN) chairman Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has proved to be a damaging decision.

Despite having one of the best electoral manifestos, these measures were overshadowed by the focus on court cases and corruption.

“A party perceived widely to engage in corruption and having lost heavily from a corruption scandal in 2018 – that embraces and opts for a leader facing criminal charges to lead its national campaign – should have expected losses,” opined Welsh.

“For many inside the party, Zahid’s role as the party’s defender changed to one of damager in the GE15 (15th General Election) campaign.”

While Zahid alone is not completely responsible for UMNO’s GE15 electoral collapse and it was a shared loss – noting also that it was former PM Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob who decided to finally buckle and call the election – Zahid was de facto at the helm of the defeat, according to Welsh.

“He made GE15 about himself as (Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad and (Datuk Seri) Najib (Raak) did earlier,” she asserted.

“Choosing to publicly punish his 2018 challenger to the party presidency Khairy Jamaluddin only showcased infighting and vengefulness as the party lost an opportunity to hold onto a seat if he had been fielded in a more competitive area. Self-inflicted party harm was prominent.” – Jan 12, 2023

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