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Umno's Dilemma
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's successor could be decided in March. And a fight seems to be brewing for nomination to the post.
By Simon Elegant in Kuala Lumpur
Issue cover-dated March 2, 2000
The identity of Malaysia's next prime minister seems likely to be decided in the next few weeks by a few hundred middle-ranking politicians.

These political operators normally work far from the public eye, deep in the engine room of the ruling United Malays National Organization's formidable political machine. They run the party's 165 divisions, its basic organizational units. As such, they nominate candidates for Umno's triennial elections, to be held on May 11.

Despite a top-level appeal for a no-contest, it now looks as though the deputy presidency of the party--which traditionally carries with it the deputy premiership--will be up for grabs. But the real battle won't take place in May, some party members and outside analysts believe. Instead, they say, it's being fought now, during the nomination process.

Behind-the-scenes intrigue has long been a hallmark of the party that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957. But the Byzantine struggle currently taking place behind the genial smiles and amiable handshakes is for even bigger stakes than usual: The winner of the contest for the No. 2 post in Umno will in all likelihood eventually take over from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has vowed that his current term in office will be his last.

Perhaps even more important, the identity of the winner will also go a long way toward determining whether or not Umno, deeply wounded despite winning November's general election, will survive as the country's dominant political institution. "Umno is suicidal," says a member of Umno's supreme council grimly, noting what he calls party members' money-oriented thinking, arrogance and inability to see the need for change despite the sharp drop in the party's core Malay vote in the election. "It's like watching someone who is going to kill himself. That's why this fight is so important. We have to have a winner who has the stature to shake up the party."

With the month-long nomination process starting on March 1, it could be clear by mid- to late March who will be elected deputy president and de facto heir apparent to Umno president Mahathir. Current Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has already thrown his hat in the ring. Refusing to commit himself yet, but universally seen as preparing to challenge, is former party rebel Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah.

With the winner of the struggle likely to succeed Mahathir, the differences between the two men are critical. Even his advocates concede that Abdullah is very much the candidate of the establishment and of the status quo. Razaleigh, on the other hand, founded a breakaway party after narrowly losing to Mahathir in party elections in 1987, and only returned to the Umno fold a few years ago. His supporters tout him as the only man with the political will to save the party. "Umno is dying," says a close Razaleigh adviser, and that means radical measures must be taken to save it. "There's no choice," the adviser adds. "If Umno loses power, we tell the division heads, 'there will be no MPships or money, you will lose everything, you will be a pariah. People will hate you.'"

Some, however, wonder about the sincerity of Razaleigh's conversion to reform. A prince from the state of Kelantan, Razaleigh spent so many years in the establishment before his split with Mahathir in the late 1980s that he is "an unusual candidate to be cast in the role of a reformer," cautions Bruce Gale, who follows Umno politics for the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy. Still, he notes that Abdullah "is seen to be too much under the thumb of Mahathir to be a credible reformer," while Razaleigh probably would carry out some reform, "swept along by the tide for change."

The critical signal of whether Razaleigh will contest the deputy presidency will come when one of the divisions proves brave enough to be the first to nominate him. "The real question is who is going to bell the cat," says Razak Baginda, who heads the Malaysian Strategic Resource Centre, a government-linked think-tank in Kuala Lumpur. "And how many divisions follow that one, of course."

Not surprisingly, the pressure not to be the first to nominate is intense. The party's supreme council in January called for the presidency and deputy presidency to remain uncontested, and the prime minister has publicly stated his support for Abdullah on a number of occasions. Behind the scenes, the pressure is even greater. "It's very difficult. Division heads are being summoned one by one to Putrajaya," where Mahathir and Abdullah have their offices, says the Razaleigh adviser. "The element of fear is the big thing. A lot of division chiefs tell us: 'We're for you but I'm scared.'"

Abdullah's supporters are "out there visiting the divisions every day," says the Umno supreme council member. "A lot of stick is being used as well as carrots. When the stakes are this high . . ." Those efforts will redouble if any of the divisions does nominate Razaleigh, says Razak. "All hell would break lose. Then they'd roll out the really heavy guns" to pressure remaining divisions not to follow suit.

Even an Abdullah adviser, however, concedes that something approaching the 33 divisions (20% of the total) needed to secure the nomination for the deputy presidency may be leaning towards Razaleigh. In order to challenge Mahathir for the top post, Razaleigh would have to get 30%, or 50 nominations.

Though Razaleigh's advisers say he hasn't ruled out a run for the top, many Umno watchers believe challenging Mahathir would be almost prohibitively difficult, both at the nomination level and in the month and a half of campaigning that would follow if he secures the necessary number of nominations.

Critically, a strong argument can be made that the opposite is true of a contest for the deputy presidency--that if Razaleigh secures the nominations, he will definitely win the post. "People have told Abdullah, 'Don't let Razaleigh get the nominations because if he does, you will lose,'" says a senior Umno member. Explaining, he ticks off categories of support for Razaleigh:

For now, all eyes are firmly on the nomination process and the manoeuvring that will take place in the coming weeks. Much depends on timing: when the various divisions hold their meetings, and when Razaleigh chooses to finally declare his candidacy. Division meetings are staggered throughout the nomination month, so a candidate's strong early showing could influence successive meetings. Because Razaleigh has said he would vie for a top party post only if there was a groundswell of support for his candidacy, he is likely to wait until a number of divisions have nominated him.

"But our strategy is to make sure he doesn't get the nominations," says the Abdullah adviser. "If he does and a snowball effect starts, then we're in trouble."