BN parties at the crossroads


KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 13 — Umno may still be celebrating its spectacular win in a by-election two days ago, but its triumph is not shared by many Malaysians.

While the party’s leaders hail the win as a trophy to carry into Umno’s annual assembly that begins today, some are less enthusiastic — even within the party. They believe there is still a strong anti-establishment feeling against the ruling party.

Umno had two days ago stopped a losing streak when it won a by-election in Bagan Pinang in Negri Sembilan. After losing seven out of eight by-elections held since last year’s general election, its candidate Tan Sri Isa Samad grabbed a landslide win against Parti Islam SeMalaysia’s Zulkefly Mohamad Omar.

The win raised Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s hopes that it would mark a point of rejuvenation for the party. “It looks like they (the people) have confidence and trust in the BN,” he said yesterday, referring to the Barisan Nasional coalition.

But the triumph is coloured by Isa’s tainted history: He was suspended for three years for buying votes in a party election in 2004.

“If Umno becomes very passionate about the win in one place while losing in other areas…if we lose (sight of) our responsibilities, I believe that in the coming general election, we will not achieve a good victory or we will not win,” former premier Tun Mahathir Mohamad was quoted as saying in a news website.

Gerakan politician Hsu Dar Ren said the anti-establishment feeling was still strong. He believes the fact that Umno fielded a tainted candidate would be used against it in the future.

What the by-election has changed, however, is the dynamics within the BN’s power-sharing arrangement. This is because Umno won the by-election without much help from its Chinese partner.

Isa won strong Indian support despite the community’s rejection of MIC, while MCA was struggling to cope after party delegates rejected its top two leaders three days ago.

Isa’s win clearly puts Umno in a decidedly stronger position in the coalition.

Some Umno warlords believe Umno’s path to victory does not have to be hand in hand with its non-Malay components, suggesting that the party allocate fewer Malay-majority seats to non-Malay parties to contest in the next election.

Kelantan prince, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, has also called for the resignation of MCA Cabinet ministers after the collapse of its leadership. Such calls will raise the pressure on Najib to go it alone, if necessary.

“The temptation for Najib to reach over the heads of the non-Malay component parties in Peninsular Malaysia will be hard to resist,” wrote political analyst Ong Kian Ming in a commentary. He noted that this had also happened after MCA lost badly in the 1969 general election.

Najib has already started to reach out directly to the minorities, observed political analyst Rita Sim. So far, however, there is no indication of how far Umno will push this strategy. The next general election is not due until 2013.

Taking this approach has its risks. Sim noted that Najib’s overtures worked with the Indians, because they are not self-sufficient in economic terms. The Chinese, on the other hand, remain sceptical, and may be harder to reach.

A recent poll by Merdeka Centre showed that 68 per cent of Indians approved of Najib’s leadership, and an equal proportion rejected the MIC. But the Chinese gave the lowest approval rating to the Premier. It could leave Malaysia even more polarised, Sim said. — The Straits Times