Thorough leadership change awaits for a defensive UMNO

By Ooi Kee Beng

The best form of defence is a good offence. Judging from the bad shape the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) is in despite having had seven months to control the damage done to it and its allies by voters on March 8 this year, perhaps opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been smarter than assumed.

The writer is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

His failure to topple the government on 16 September is seen by many as a brash move by an otherwise masterful political strategist. Indeed, his apparent urgency to become prime minister has been criticized by friends and foes alike as being indicative of his major failing – impatience.

Many would have preferred to see him concentrate on consolidating the position of the component parties of his coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, and of being an effective opposition leader in parliament. Some of his critics have seen his battering of the Abdullah administration over the last few months as a move unbecoming of a man aiming to occupy the country's most powerful office.

But as a PR insider recently mentioned to me, "16 September is not a date, but a concept". To understand this point, in place of "concept", one should perhaps read "strategy".

It is natural to assume that consolidation after a victory requires fortifying boundaries and digging trenches, etc., in order for one to be in a position to beat back any attack from the enemy. However, in certain situations, and especially when the retreating enemy has suffered a particularly bad thrashing, one can actually have one's cake and eat it too.

One can continue harassing the enemy while consolidating one's position. The harassing itself makes the consolidating all the more effective.

Is this what Anwar has been doing?

It certainly looks that way if we consider how badly UMNO and the Barisan Nasional have been in regrouping their troops into a useable formation. The BN has not arrived at any new plan of action to reinvent itself. UMNO failed to get rid of a party leadership that was not only responsible for the coalition's electoral shame, but that has also lost credibility to such an extent that all announcements made by it today are disbelieved, ridiculed, and then ignored.

Abdullah's assurance to Malaysians in the wake of Zaid Ibrahim's resignation as de facto law minister over the use of the Internal Security Act (ISA) that he would keep his four-year-old promise to reform the judiciary now rings more hollow than ever.

While its allies look to it for inspiration, UMNO is unsure of its own direction. With party elections now postponed till March next year, three more months is added to the period of uncertainty that has left the BN mired in its own lack of imagination. The BN is restless.

Whatever is happening to UMNO and its allies, it is not rejuvenation. And if it is, it will not have an impact any time soon.

The sniping between the BN and the PR has had certain results that bode well for the country as a whole, though. For example, the administration's ill-advised use of the ISA last month against star blogger Raja Petra Kamaruddin, opposition politician Teresa Kok and journalist Tan Hoon Cheng has backfired and given enormous impetus to the anti-ISA movement.

Second, Malaysians were treated to an unforgettable confirmation of how rural Malays can indeed vote for a multiracial party, and one led by a man facing a charge of sodomy at that, when Anwar Ibrahim won the Permatang Pauh by-election in August. His victory margin was bigger than anyone had imagined. This bodes ill for UMNO, a party dependent on rural votes.

What is also upsetting the ruling coalition is the fact that the opposition parties seem to be settling in very well in the northern states that they now control. Furthermore, the unholy alliance of the "social-democratic" Democratic Action Party, the Islamist Parti Islam SeMalaysia and the multiracial Parti KeAdilan Rakyat, has been able to work together even after the elections.

Apart from the smart move by UMNO to try to split the PR by holding talks with PAS on the issue of "protecting Malay interest", no PR split large enough to raise BN spirits has appeared. The recent destruction of an Indian temple in Selangor did prompt an Indian PKR leader to threaten to resign, and a Malay PKR leader did play a major role in the disruption of a lawful conference on Muslim conversions organized by the Malaysian Bar Council; but these have not developed into life-or-death issues for the coalition.

Meanwhile, Anwar got the whole nation fixated on 16 September being D-Day for the government. It is true that he did not topple the government, but he did force UMNO to dislodge Abdullah as prime minister much earlier than it had at first planned.

Now with no two-year transition plan to stabilize it, as had been originally hoped, UMNO must go through a much more thorough change of leadership than it would wish for at this time. The internal skirmishes of the coming elections threaten to scar the party deeply.

Perceived this way, Anwar's "16 September offensive" is not a failure. It has thrown UMNO's ranks into great disarray, and put that stronger party – and not Anwar's own – on the defensive.

- The Malaysian Insider

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