UMNO – Malaysia’s most established political institution and for a long time considered the most favoured party for the ethnic Malays that make up more than 60 per cent of the country’s 33.6 million population – has been on the back foot because of its image as a graft tainted party.
The party, which ruled Malaysia as the anchor party of Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition since independence, lost power in May 2018 on the back of widespread public anger over the scandal at state-owned investment vehicle 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB). The 1MDB scandal subsequently led to the conviction and jailing of former UMNO president and prime minister Najib Razak over corruption.
Ahmad Zahid is also facing charges of criminal breach of trust and money laundering during his tenure as home minister between 2013 and 2018. His trial is set to resume on April 10.
While UMNO’s political prestige has been severely battered in recent years, the party and Ahmad Zahid remain crucial to the unity government headed by Mr Anwar.
In the face of strong internal opposition within UMNO, Ahmad Zahid threw the party’s weight behind Mr Anwar’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, which won the most seats in the Nov 19 general election, but fell short of a majority needed to form a government. UMNO’s move led its traditional allies in the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah to join the unity government, breaking a week-long political deadlock and paving the way for Mr Anwar’s appointment as premier.
Ahmad Zahid has said that the party election results showed that UMNO’s leaders and grassroots members were clearly in favour of the unity government.
But several party leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the upbeat pronouncements by Ahmad Zahid and those loyal to him after the recent internal polls are aimed to gloss over that simmering tension in the party following the purge in late January of senior leaders who were potential challengers to the politicians in the Ahmad Zahid camp.
The party sacked 44 members, including former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin, former Selangor UMNO chief Noh Omar, and suspended four others, including former defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein.