Barisan mired in internal battles

It has been 100 days since the March 8 general election which changed the political landscape in Malaysia dramatically, with voters delivering a sharp rebuke to the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition. The Straits Times Malaysia Bureau examines how politics has evolved since then for the humbled ruling coalition as well as the resurgent opposition.

By Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times


FOREIGN MINISTER Rais Yatim joked that he might soon be known as the former foreign minister.

He was well aware of speculation that he could be dropped from the Cabinet – quite unlikely, really – after he called for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi to hand over power.

‘But I always believe in the right to speak out. In this stage of my political career, I want to put things on the level,’ he told The Straits Times.

He made his call at a high-level Umno leaders’ retreat earlier this month held to hammer out a plan to deal with the aftermath of the March 8 general election which left the party and the ruling coalition it dominates seriously weakened.

Datuk Rais was not the first to call for a handover of power, but it caused a stir as he is a senior party and government leader. He is the next most senior leader after International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin to do so.

This latest development is just one of many in the Umno leadership dance that looks set to continue.

Datuk Seri Abdullah has indicated he will not serve the full term, but has also made clear that he will leave on his own terms.

On Sunday, he said he would run for the party presidency in the Umno elections at the end of the year, stating categorically that he was ‘not retiring’ before December.

He also said that a date for the transition of power to his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, had not been decided, even though both men had agreed on a ‘right time’ for the handover.

The latest handover date is speculated to be in 2010 or 2011, and this is causing some dissatisfaction within the party grassroots.

Umno is mired in serious leadership tussles. And with its own issues, this party that is the backbone of the Malaysian government has been unable to take a leadership role in holding the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition together.

‘The BN is centred around Umno, and the component parties have traditionally depended on Umno to set the political direction,’ said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

The BN’s major partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), Gerakan, and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), are themselves mired in leadership struggles. MCA president Ong Ka Ting’s position is under threat from the latent factions that have emerged in the party. In MIC, Datuk Seri S. Samy Vellu is determined to go for another term, unfazed by calls to resign.

The Gerakan party, which was trounced in its Penang base, is probably the worst hit as it has been haemorrhaging talent to the opposition.

A hundred days after the March 8 polls, the BN is in as deep trouble as it was after suffering its worst losses in a general election. And it has yet to take significant steps towards the reform many say is necessary to stop the rot.

‘The ossified BN parties do not seem able to respond to the environment quickly enough to fend off the challenge,’ said a political analyst.

He was, of course, referring to the very real threat of defections to the opposition that can topple the BN-held central government.

The Malaysian political outlook remains extremely fluid, with the power balance shifting by the week, and new developments cropping up rapidly.

Reform is crucial if the parties are to attract talent to remain viable, said Dr Rais. ‘We have become oblivious to the younger generation. There is no link from the grassroots to the leadership, and people no longer accept that they have no voice.’

In Umno, which is obsessed with the leadership dance between Mr Abdullah and Mr Najib, the only person to have laid out an agenda of reform is party presidential contender Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. His campaign seems slow to take off, but in politics, anything is possible.

Among the other parties, the MIC has launched a rebranding campaign, while the MCA and Gerakan have come out with media strategies to be seen to be more vocal on issues affecting the Chinese community.

‘But none has taken concrete steps to turn around. Being more vocal won’t win them more support. People do not see it as sincere,’ said Mr Khoo.

The dynamics within the coalition remain highly unstable. There is now speculation that the small Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) could leave the BN to become independent, with the option of joining the opposition later. It has two MPs, and can act as a catalyst for further defections.

The SAPP has denied it. So has the MCA, after Mr Anwar said several of its MPs are ready to defect.

Further, post-March 8, when the electorate punished them for becoming what they perceived as subservient to Umno, the non-Malay parties have started to speak louder on communal interests.

‘The big question now is how multiracial politics is being pursued in Malaysia, and whether race-based parties will last at all,’ said a political analyst.

This comes against a backdrop of the Pakatan Rakyat singing an attractive multiracial tune that may well sound the death knell for racial politics as usual.

It is, of course, too early to tell.

The political turmoil has not ended, and the key party to watch in the BN is Umno.

‘A hundred days later, the BN and its parties are still hoping for a rebound. But politics is changing by the day, and it may easily fall apart piece by piece,’ said Mr Khoo.


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