WILL Umno change? That’s been the perennial question since the March 2008 general election.
The answer may well be how much its incoming president Datuk Seri Najib Razak will let it.
Three political observers, at least, believe that Najib will return to a more authoritarian style of governance, which will not bode well for Umno’s ability to reinvent itself.
This is because Umno has not responded to the “generational change” which began in 1999 — the start of the Reformasi movement — while the opposition parties have been able to adapt themselves.
Money and patronage
Speaking at a Konrad Adenaeur Foundation-organised forum on 16 Feb 2009, academics and a politician said Umno would likely use more repressive means to deal with increased pressure to regain voter support and control of states lost to Pakatan Rakyat (PR).
Speaking at the “Malaysia: One Year After 8 March” forum, academic Dr Edmund Terence Gomez said Umno is too deeply embedded in money politics and patronage to respond quickly to change.
“Factionalism is so entrenched in the party that money politics is needed to get elected. When Najib takes control of BN (Barisan Nasional), we will see the extreme concentration of power in the executive being used to ensure that BN policies continue,” said Gomez, an associate professor in administrative studies and politics at Universiti Malaya.
German researcher Dr Andreas Ufen noted that BN could resort to repressive measures but would perpetuate its own demise in doing so.
“The more the regime tries to subdue opposition, the more it loses legitimacy,” said Ufen who is with the Institute for Asian Studies at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies.
Both academics contend that the anti-BN sentiment reflected in the 2008 general election began in 1999, and is still dynamic.
The observers view the 1998/1999 Reformasi as not being about Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim per se. Rather, they see Reformasi as a rejection of authoritarian politics and a desire for uncorrupted governance.
Giving up power
But Ufen described both the 1999 and 2008 polls as “transitional, not foundational”.
“They did not inaugurate a new democratic regime but they did mark a new phase in the struggle for democracy,” he said.
With Malaysia in transition, the BN’s attempt to reclaim its legitimacy will depend on the options Umno chooses to exercise.
But Umno is experiencing an “ideological block”, said another forum speaker, Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, as it tries to fathom the meaning of giving up power.
“The test of democracy is when you are about to lose power. Will you follow certain processes, like recognising the mandate of the people?
“For the first time you have a situation where the dominant Malay party suddenly realises that they are losing power. Will Umno give it up gracefully? Will they accept the decision of the people?
“If they say no, we can expect more troubled times,” said the former minister who resigned over the government’s use of the Internal Security Act.
Zaid, a former Umno member who was sacked from the party for being seen with the opposition, said recent examples of BN’s “desperation” were its takeover of the Perak state government and the confiscation of opposition party newspapers Suara Keadilan and Harakah.
Gomez, who has charted the shift in support for BN beginning from the 1990 elections, noted that Malay Malaysian support for Umno fell during times of prosperity, especially in the rural heartland.
In 1995, BN recorded its best electoral victory riding on the back of an economic boom. But support for the coalition fell in Malay Malaysian-majority seats in Kedah and Terengganu, Gomez noted.
“This was mainly because Umno had failed to deliver economically to the Malay heartland,” he said.
Gomez drew distinctions between former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s policies and that of his successor Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
These must be understood against the backdrop of a divide between Malay Malaysians themselves — an urban middle-class, professional group, and the rural group.
“Rural Malays have been the backbone of Umno but increasingly saw Umno not as protector, but as a party that failed to deliver its promises to them. This group supported PAS in 1999. When Abdullah came to power in November 2003, he adopted a completely different, populist agenda,” Gomez said.
This included promoting agriculture, which Mahathir paid scant attention to, as a means to eradicate rural poverty. Abdullah also promoted small-and-medium industries, while Mahathir supported conglomerates and corporate Malaysia. Abdullah also promised to reign in corruption which Gomez said “thrived under Dr Mahathir’s selective patronage”.
“By stressing these reforms, Abdullah undermined the Reformasi movement and took on their agenda which explains why he did so well in 2004,” Gomez added. In that election, BN won more than two-thirds of the parliamentary seats and 63.8% of the popular vote.
Gomez says the public rejection of authoritarianism has been clear for the last decade but Umno has not caught on.
Its leaders may have, such as Mahathir who coined the term “Bangsa Malaysia”, in recognising that society was in transition.
But in practice, leaders have been unable to keep racial politics in check.
“The opposition fared well because after Anwar was released, he read the public mood very well.
“Anwar promised multiracial politics and to dispense with affirmative action that had driven non-Malays to the opposition, and that had upset rural Malays who were the target group but were not benefitting,” Gomez said.
An indicator of generational change can also be found in DAP’s electoral track record.
Gomez noted that it is the only opposition party to chart a consistent increase in parliamentary seats, with 10 in 1999, 12 in 2004 and 28 in 2008.
In contrast, PAS and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) have fluctuating performances. PAS had 27 seats in 1999, seven in 2004, and 23 in 2008. PKR had five, one and 31 seats respectively in those years.
This analysis is consistent with DAP’s “Malaysian Malaysia” message, and indicative of the electorate’s ambivalence towards PAS and the nascent PKR.
What this means to Gomez is that there is a new generation demanding “an inclusive, participatory form of politics”, a politics which draws attention to Bangsa Malaysia as a national identity.
“It is a call for identity change related to dispensing with race-based politics. This suggests that our political parties must strike a fine balance between the Malay heartland, which still insists on affirmative action, and the urban electorate,” he said.
The end is not nigh
That balance is nowhere in sight, with PR’s new politics of inclusiveness still untested, and with Umno still locked in its spatial divide between urban and rural Malays.
The transition to full democracy is proceeding slowly, Ufen says, because BN though weakened, is still “too cohesive and has too much vested interests” for mass dissent from within to take place.
The opposition too, is still fragile, with sporadic tensions between PAS and DAP. And neither is PR’s dependence on Anwar as their sole unifier a healthy trend should PR become Malaysia’s vehicle to democracy.
Ufen believes a “protracted transition” is in store for Malaysia, which he says is located “somewhere in the grey zone between democracy and ‘full’ authoritarianism”.
Protracted indeed with two, if not three, impending by-elections, a change of national leadership, and constant rumours of political defections.
And it is only the beginning of 2009, with another four years before the next general election has to be called.
Umno is too deeply embedded in money politics and patronage to respond quickly to change.