The Umno party, which has dominated Malaysian politics since the country’s independence, starts five days of soul searching today at its annual congress, amid unprecedented challenges to its power.
With voter support crumbling and internal dissent running rampant, the focus will be on the party’s leader-in-waiting, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, as he tries to carve out a recovery plan. Mr Najib is due to take over from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi as United Malays National Organisation president at the congress, before being installed as prime minister on April 3.
“Not just Umno members but most Malaysians are focused on the congress and on Najib, because although Umno is battered, it is still a big power player,” said political scientist Chandra Muzaffar.
“Besides the elections [for party posts], the other main focus is on how Najib proposes to revive Umno’s flagging fortunes.”
In the past year, the party suffered its worst electoral results, losing power in five states and a third of its seats in the national parliament to a resurgent opposition, led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim. The results forced Mr Abdullah to step aside in favour of Mr Najib.
More recently, the party has been embroiled in a bribery scandal involving payments for influence.
Last week, the party’s committee barred about 20 members from contesting elections. Senior Umno leader Ali Rustam was barred from standing as deputy president on grounds of vote-buying.
Publicly, Mr Najib has committed himself to an agenda of change.
“This is the most critical time in the history of Umno and [the ruling National Front coalition],” the incoming leader told the New Straits Times.
“We need to undertake reforms, be it in the party or government, as the people have given us the signals in the last general election – to change,” he said.
“We need to accept this challenge by making massive changes to the party and the government.”
But the task may be easier said than done.
“It is hard to eradicate money politics in Umno because it has become the norm,” said Ramon Navaratnam, Transparency International Malaysia chairman.
“We hope Najib will bite the bullet and clean up Umno and society, because his predecessor, Abdullah, has failed.”
Mr Abdullah will give his final speech as party president tomorrow, but most attention will be on Mr Najib’s speech on Saturday, in which he will outline his vision.
“The general theme is change to survive, or die,” said political scientist Denison Jayasooria of University Kebangsaan. “He will tell the delegates that they must respond to rising demands for good governance or disappear from the political scene.
“There is strong resistance to change within Umno,” Dr Denison said. “Despite the polls losses, the party is still in denial.”
About 4,000 delegates and observers are being put up in hotels surrounding the Putra World Trade Centre, the congress venue. The centre is decked out in banners and flags as candidates lobby for support.
Mr Abdullah’s predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, is making a play for influence. He is publicly “advising” Mr Najib how to run the country, who to pick for his cabinet and what the priorities should be.
Dr Mahathir, who stepped down in 2003 after 22 years, is openly backing candidates for key posts, pushing the candidacy of his son Mukhriz Mahathir to head the Umno Youth wing. Mr Abdullah is backing his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin against Mr Mukhriz.
Nearly 50 others leaders are vying for the three posts of vice-president and the 35 vacancies on the party’s Supreme Council.
Source : South China Morning Post