Malaysia’s party elections deliver a resounding – if pyrrhic – victory for the Prime Minister
Malaysia’s intraparty elections for the United Malays National Organization, which concluded over the weekend, have resulted in a resurrection of sorts for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who was all but given up as finished in the wake of the May 5 election debacle.
The party has been struggling with its identity since the election, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote by a 50.87-47.38 percent split to the Pakatan Rakyat coalition headed by Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. The Barisan returned to the majority with a diminished 133 seats to the opposition’s 89 only because of gerrymandering. Najib was blamed for the debacle by party stalwarts including led by and egged on by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Nonetheless, within the party, Najib has emerged as the rejuvenated leader of a fractured party. His candidates for the party’s top seven slots – president, deputy president, three vice president, youth leader and women’s leader – all were returned to office, most by healthy margins, as were members of the party’s Supreme Council.
But the question is whether the decision by 145,000 of the party faithful to return them to office was a pyrrhic victory.
“UMNO has not changed. Money still talks,” said an embittered anti-Najib source who described himself as a 20-year member of the party. “Political corruption is rampant. These elections point to a party that is dying and could very well lose the next national elections.”
That was a reference to the fact that Najib’s forces appear to have poured vast amounts of money into buying votes at the district level to ensure that his candidates won. The vote-buying was termed a “golden storm” by party insiders, with votes going for as much as RM300 each.
Najib and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, were unopposed in the party elections. However, an unofficial “Mahathir slate” developed for other positions. Particularly, Mahathir was pushing to make his son, Mukhriz, the 49-year-old chief minister of Kedah, one of the three vice presidents, which would have been viewed as a springboard to eventually go for the party presidency and premiership. Mukhriz finished fourth.
Party insiders say the danger is that the 88-year-old Mahathir could stage an all-out attack on Najib, as he did on Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, after poor electoral results that cost the party its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008. Already, a legion of bloggers aligned with Mahathir has been on a rampage against Najib. However, the betting is that since Mahathir has no allies in senior positions in the party, his ability to do much damage is probably limited. Such a move, however, obviously would exacerbate the schisms in the party that are already there.
Among the winners, the most significant included Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has drawn close to Najib after previously being regarded as a pariah by much of the UMNO rank and file. Khairy was returned as head of the party’s youth wing despite the fact that he was the Mahathir’s particular bête noire.
Also returned to power was Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who was forced to step down last year as a senator amid allegations that members of her family had looted the National Feedlot Corporation, a publicly funded project to rear cattle by halal, or Islamic religious methods.