Monday, 19 January 2009
Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times
A day after Umno lost a crucial by-election in the Malay heartland of Terengganu, several of its leaders warned that the party will become irrelevant if it ignored this warning from the ground.
Veteran Umno leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah said the people had rejected Umno in its present form and its leadership. 'Barisan Nasional (BN) will lose and will in the end lose everything unless we respond fully and sincerely,' he said.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad also said that BN could lose the next general election, and went further by blaming Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. He said the result was a vote of no-confidence in Datuk Seri Abdullah.
Dr Mahathir sees defeated Umno candidate Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh as a proxy of Mr Abdullah, as he is said to be close to the Premier's family.
Referring to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, he said: 'I think Najib is not to be blamed but if he continues to elect or support corrupt leaders, then I think he will lose the next general election.'
Mr Najib had headed the Umno campaign in the Kuala Terengganu by-election, which was called after Umno MP Razali Ismail died. Umno lost to its arch-rival Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) by 2,631 votes on Saturday.
This shifting of blame between Mr Najib and Mr Abdullah comes at a crucial time as the Premier is set to hand over power to his deputy.
Mr Najib will assume the Umno presidency, which is uncontested, in March, and should by convention, become the country's prime minister.
This is however not a legal requirement. There is nothing to stop Mr Abdullah from remaining as Prime Minister, and there is roiling speculation that he is being pushed to do so.
'The transition plan is on track,' Foreign Minister Rais Yatim said. 'But this trend of Umno losing support is frightening.'
Umno lost the most ground in the Malay areas, while the Chinese votes remained stable. Analysts and party leaders have attributed the defeat to the choice of candidate, party in-fighting, and Umno's disconnect with the ground.
Mr Wan Farid, while an affable man, is seen as aloof. 'I could see that he just couldn't bring himself to ask for the people's help to vote for him,' said an Umno Youth party worker.
Among the rural villagers, his aloofness put him at a disadvantage against the down-to-earth candidate from PAS, Mr Abdul Wahid Endut.
But it was Mr Wan Farid's reputed close ties with Mr Abdullah's family that posed the bigger problem. It allowed the opposition to accuse Umno of losing touch with the ground by picking a candidate who represented the elite rather than the people.
The opposition also capitalised on the persistent anger in Terengganu over government spending on luxury projects such as the Crystal Mosque and the Monsoon Cup yacht race. The state is among the poorest in Malaysia.
The Monsoon Cup, in particular, was started by a businessman with close ties to Mr Abdullah's family.
'We keep saying that we want acceptable candidates but we keep picking people closer to the leadership than anything else,' Umno Youth leader Mukhriz Mahathir said.
Voters clearly saw Umno as seriously disconnected from the ground, and may have also been turned off by Umno's divisive style of campaigning.
Umno's message to the Malay voters - that PAS was being forced to kowtow to its non-Malay partners - did not appear to have won the people over.
In-fighting in the local Umno branches also jeopardised the campaign.
This is the second by-election that Umno has lost since last August, when the Permatang Pauh by-election was won by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
That loss started a round of soul- searching and blood-letting.
As Umno revs up its own election season, this defeat is likely to spark bickering in its ranks as leaders jostle for party posts. All positions are being contested from the deputy presidency downwards.
But not everyone is convinced that the party is fully aware of the extent of the loss of support.
'We must relook our inner core values. It's going to be very tough,' said Mr Rais.