How the mighty have fallen, Umno's downhill spiral

12 May 2023 09:46pm
Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) speaking after the Yasin recital ceremony, in conjunction with Umno's 77th Anniversary Celebration at Surau Ar-Rahman Menara Dato' Onn, Kuala Lumpur World Trade Center (WTCKL) on Thursday - BERNAMA
Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (left) speaking after the Yasin recital ceremony, in conjunction with Umno's 77th Anniversary Celebration at Surau Ar-Rahman Menara Dato' Onn, Kuala Lumpur World Trade Center (WTCKL) on Thursday - BERNAMA

Umno celebrated its 77th anniversary of its formation on May 11, not with the pomp, splendour and gusto associated with a party in absolute power, but with dark soberness typical of an organisation thrashed, troubled and teeming in despair.

In the five years since Barisan Nasional – with Umno as its linchpin – lost the popular vote during the 2018 general election, the party’s fortunes have steadily lurched to an unstoppable downhill progression.

From its authoritative perch in every election cycle from 1960 to 2004, every Umno president is automatically made a prime minister, who dominated the Cabinet with key Umno appointees.

Umno has always measured its range of power by numbers: the predator’s share of Dewan Rakyat seats and in nine state assemblies, where an Umno leader is either a mentri besar or a chief minister.

From that strength in numbers came the rewards for key allies: chairmanships or directorships in government-linked companies, sovereign funds and listed companies.

No longer. From its infamous 2018 loss and further humiliation in last year’s polls, Umno is like a super heavyweight wrestler forced to shed the kilogrammes to compete in as a middleweight, maybe even in a lower ranking.

If blame had to be apportioned for this loss of fortune in just one word, it is corruption, real and perceived. It’s top leaders were ignominiously hauled to court, several were found guilty of financial crimes, varying from taking huge kickbacks to plain breach of trust in the billions (they don’t care for millions anymore) while several others, already indicted, await either their hearings or a judgment.

If Umno’s history is untangled since inception, the party simply had no worthwhile rivals to neuter its behemoth status. It’s most dangerous enemy is itself and from within.

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If Umno lost an election, it’s not because the opponent was stronger but because rank and file sabotaged the party’s candidate for any number of reasons, from envy to loss of face to not getting positions or funding.

And because of the clash of egos or various alpha males, Umno developed a schism that self-generates every decade.

First, it was a big split between the secular and the theologians that led to Pas’ formation in 1951 and for a while, Umno was hinged until 1981 when a clash for the deputy presidency degenerated into an all-out civil war that again split the party with the formation of Semangat 46.

Once the Semangat threat abated, another tectonic shift imploded, this time the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy PM and Umno deputy president, who formed Parti Keadilan Rakyat and persevered for 20 years before it prevailed.

In that time between Anwar’s sacking and the 2022 defeat, Umno suffered several numerical losses, slowly and steadily, unable to plug diminishing returns of voters starting in the 2008 polls while still addicted to the idea of raw power translating into “money-making” ventures that flared up with the privatisation, corporatisation and industrialisation policy shifts of the 1980s.

From this quick analysis, the party’s doomsday scenario originated decades ago and strange as it seems, at the peak of its powers.

Eventually, the Opposition got wind of this Umno paradox and realised that the only way to defeat Umno, and its BN vehicle and machinery, was to capitalise on its internal weakness and inherent lust for wealth, to the hilt. It worked.

Now, Umno is a pale shadow of its mighty self, it’s fortunes dependent on the discretion of its bigger partners in Pakatan Harapan, ironically Keadilan and DAP, whom Umno demonised as a cynical party policy for 40 years.

But wait: due to a plot twist resonating from the 2022 polls’ results, Umno was inadvertently thrown a lifeline: they became unexpected kingmakers in Anwar’s bid to form an administration and successfully negotiated for a deputy premiership for their party president indicted for corruption and a slew of Cabinet portfolios for his top allies.

It’s grating to progressives who assumed Umno was as good as dead but apparently, there is a political afterlife, even if it is loathsome idea that to form a government, PH had no choice but to accommodate Umno to the disgust of its acolytes.

So, we come to this: Umno president and deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s plea to members that they must believe that the party, despite is titanic defeats, is still “relevant.” At Umno’s 77th anniversary celebration at its World Trade Centre headquarters, Zahid talk the good talk about Umno’s legacy and place in history and how the party was “trapped and slandered” in the last general election.

Zahid spoke as if Umno was a victim instead of a defanged and declawed predator. In a nutshell, he spoke in a situation of denial, enthusiastically enabled by his subordinates and minions At 77, Umno’s is as relevant as a fish out of water, barely alive, but sucking in oxygen from all directions.

As far as defending Malay rights and their special constitutional position, Umno stands on a broken footing: a sizeable Malay electorate has recognised the folly in letting Umno do the managing.

They finally see that Umno has for years taken advantage of the Malay proletariat by the banal rallying cry of “agama, bangsa dan negara” (religion, race and nation), which translated into “what’s in it for me”, especially if it’s yelled during the annual Umno general assembly, which meant the “entrepreneurs” among the delegates demand more cuts in the huge pie of government contracts.

The Malays have also seen that Umno was never keen to develop second or third echelons of leaders, and those who do rise are apprentices waiting for their turn to shine.

Senior Umno divisional leaders placed formidable road blocks to membership, fearing a mini coup that they can soon be replaced by the able and competent recruits.

In the past, Umno grew so big (at one time in the 90s, they boasted a 3.2 million membership) but the numbers have likely dwindled though the party is not big on divulging the real membership roll.

To be fair, there is a major segment of young Umno leaders who’s willing to come clean but unable to dislodge a leadership still suckling in the “good old days”, a bane for the near future.

They have been outwitted and outmanoeuvred by a ruthless leadership determined to cling to power by any means necessary because the alternative is “bad” for their health, wellbeing and prosperity

Azmi Anshar is a retired newspaper editor and award-winning commentator, who also likes to indulge in books, music, movies and his grandkids.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.

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