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Bangkok Post
Bangkok Post

Malaysian party’s purge of senior leaders fortifies chief’s grip

Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (right) poses with Deputy Prime Ministers Ahmad Zahid Hamidi (centre) and Fadillah Yusof (left) after the swearing-in ceremony of the newly appointed cabinet ministers at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, on Dec 3, 2022. (AFP file photo)

Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi strengthened his hold over one of the nation’s ruling parties after purging or sidelining senior leaders on Friday, but analysts say the move will do little to bolster his bloc’s popularity.

The United Malays National Organisation expelled former Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin for breaching internal regulations in the recent general election, and suspended ex-Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein for six years. Both were among the most vocal in opposing Zahid’s leadership and actions after a dismal performance by UMNO at the November polls.

UMNO and the wider Barisan Nasional coalition it leads has declined in popularity amid infighting and corruption scandals, with Zahid himself facing graft charges. Barisan Nasional had its worst showing in the election, but a hung parliament led to the formation of a unity government with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan alliance.

“Whilst Zahid has managed to tighten his grip over the party, he may have also narrowed the paths for UMNO’s recovery,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy managing director at BowerGroupAsia. “Following the sacking and suspension of its leaders, it is difficult to see the party reversing its downward trajectory.”

Earlier this month, Zahid’s position as UMNO president was solidified for another term after the party approved a motion to prevent its top two roles from being contested during internal leadership polls due by May.

Political scion Hishammuddin — once an UMNO vice president — is the cousin of former premier Najib Razak and the son of the country’s third prime minister. Hishammuddin’s grandfather Onn Jaafar founded UMNO. Khairy was a one-time candidate for party president, and the UMNO Supreme Council also sacked former Housing and Local Government Minister Noh Omar.

Friday’s move suggests only those loyal to Zahid will be promoted, and dissent won’t be tolerated, said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. However, it’s unlikely to make a difference to the party’s future, he said.

“Most Malay voters increasingly prefer a more conservative and religious outlook for the country, and neither Zahid’s more traditional nor Khairy’s more reformist approach could satisfy their aspirations,” according to Oh. 

In November’s vote, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS, emerged as the single party with the most parliamentary seats, but declined to join Anwar’s unity government, saying it will instead act as a “constructive opposition”. PAS found support in mostly rural areas based on its promotion of an Islamist agenda.

Anwar’s coalition is now considering working with UMNO in state elections due this year. While the local polls won’t have a direct bearing on the composition of parliament, they will be a measure of the new government’s popularity among the public. 

By sacking and suspending leaders, Zahid is leading a weaker UMNO into the upcoming mid-term state elections, said Wong Chin Huat, a professor and political scientist at Sunway University.

“UMNO is heading to its own slaughtering field, after slaughtering the dissident warlords,” he said.

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