The purge of senior leaders by the Malaysian party strengthens the chief’s grip

(Bloomberg) — Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has tightened his grip on one of the country’s ruling parties after purging or sidelining senior leaders on Friday, but analysts say the move will do little to the popularity of his block.

Most read from Bloomberg

The United Malays National Organization has expelled former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin for violating internal rules in the recent general election and suspended ex-defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein for six years. Both were among the most outspoken opponents of Zahid’s leadership and actions following a dismal performance by UMNO at the November polls.

UMNO and the wider Barisan Nasional coalition it leads have declined in popularity amid power struggles and corruption scandals, with Zahid himself being accused of corruption. Barisan Nasional had its worst result in the election, but a hung parliament led to the formation of a government of national unity with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan alliance.

“While Zahid has managed to tighten his grip on the party, he may also have narrowed the avenues for UMNO’s recovery,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, deputy director at BowerGroupAsia. “After the dismissal and suspension of its leaders, it is difficult to see the party reversing its downward course.”

Earlier this month, Zahid’s position as UMNO president was solidified for another term after the party passed a motion to prevent her top two roles from being challenged in internal leadership polls in May.

Political scion Hishammuddin – once vice president of UMNO – is the nephew of former Prime Minister 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 chairman, and the UMNO Supreme Council also dismissed former Minister of Housing and Local Government, Noh Omar.

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

“Most Malaysian voters are increasingly favoring a more conservative and religious view of the country, and neither Zahid’s more traditional nor Khairy’s more reformist approach could satisfy their ambitions,” said Oh.

In the November vote, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, or PAS, emerged as the only 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 mainly rural areas based on the promotion of an Islamic agenda.

Anwar’s coalition is now considering partnering with UMNO in the state elections due this year. While the local polls will have no direct influence on the composition of parliament, they will be a measure of the popularity of the new government with the public.

By firing and suspending leaders, Zahid is leading a weaker UMNO into the upcoming midterm elections, said Wong Chin Huat, a professor and political scientist at Sunway University.

“UMNO goes to its own battlefield, after slaughtering the dissident warlords,” he said.

Most read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg LP

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *