By Kevin W. Fogg, May 28 2018 08:00AM
As everyone has now seen, Malaysia made history this month by breaking the hold of the United Malay Nationalist Organization over parliament for the first time since independence. Of course, the new coalition that has come to power is led by a 92-year-old man (fellow blogger) who led UMNO (indeed, his name was almost synonymous with UMNO) for several decades.
Rather than spend this blog post rejoicing with the Malaysian people over the exercise of democracy or digging through the full and fascinating history of Dr. M leading Malaysia, I thought it might be more interesting to look to Malaysia’s future by using an example from Indonesia’s past and present. Somewhat like UMNO, the Indonesian political party (or, initially, non-party / party alternative) Golkar emerged as an elite vehicle that ran the country for decades. From when it joined elections in 1971 to the fall of Soeharto in 1998, Golkar never lost a national election, and kept a pretty good stranglehold of most provinces, too. Since the fall of Soeharto, though, Golkar has consistently sought to join governing coalitions in Indonesia’s national politics. Although it supported losing presidential candidates in 2004, 2009, and 2014, each time it has switched over to join the winning candidate’s coalition (in December 2004, October 2009, and May 2016, the latter after much leadership infighting).
The reason for Golkar repeatedly abandoning its previous position to then join ruling coalitions is not just the absence of real party difference in Indonesian politics—although that certainly plays a role. I join the academic consensus in identifying as the greater issue the fact that Golkar only knows (and only knew) how to function as a funnel for channelling patronage down the party apparatus. When a group of people (or, in this case, muckity-mucks) comes together to organize, but has no principled issues and only organizes around self-enrichment, it is really hard to justify the organization without continued avenues for self-enrichment. This explains both why Golkar keeps jumping into governing coalitions where patronage is much more available, and why Golkar keeps spawning new parties when potential leaders find themselves foiled in attempts to become party head. (Among current parties, NasDem, Gerindra, and Hanura were founded by unambiguous breakaways from Golkar.)
A strong argument can be made, especially in recent years, that UMNO has come to represent the same kind of self-enriching clique of political leadership. So, the question becomes, will it follow the Golkar path to try and crawl back into someone governments led by other parties so as to gain fresh spoils for party functionaries?
The first thing to note is that several UMNO functionaries as individuals (and smaller parties of the old UMNO coalition, Barisan Nasional) have already jumped ship. Notably, this includes several state legislators in Perak and Sabah whose switch to join new coalitions has cemented those coalitions’ power at the state level. This suggests that the model of following the gravy train wherever it goes is a reasonable premise for studying UMNO (and a very strong premise for its minor coalition partners in East Malaysia). However, plenty of party leaders have stayed committed to the party so far (even while more and more are willing to throw former-leader Najib Razak under the bus), so one cannot take this premise too far.
Another caution is that UMNO does actually hold to some principles in Malaysian politics. The most notable of these, of course, is the idea of special privileges for ethnic Malays. Could this be enough to hold the party together and to keep it out of a new government containing so many parties that question Malays’ special privileges? I do not think UMNO has enough of a platform to keep it in principled opposition consistently, and I also do not think its platform positions are sufficiently unique to set it apart from the new parties that have come to power. Note that the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (a break-away from UMNO in much the same way that NasDem broke from Golkar) is not substantially different from UMNO on any issue besides holding Najib Razak somewhat accountable. Even Anwar Ibrahim, the long-time opposition leader from Partai Keadilan Rakyat who is down to be the next Deputy Prime Minister, was assuring the press that Malay privileges would be protected.
Given that the current ruling coalition was created as the anti-UMNO and so would be unlikely to let UMNO as a party back in, what is the likely fate of Malaysia’s classic ruling party? One spectre that must have its leaders worried is the pattern of several of the parties that were junior partners in UMNO coalitions: the Malaysian Indian Congress, Malaysian Chinese Association, and Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia. In the good old days of coalition, these three were perennially given cabinet posts and used as a bulwark against increasing racial tension by the successive UMNO-led governments. But, as the minority ethnic vote on the peninsula consolidated in opposition to UMNO, these smaller parties lost the Chinese and Indian voters that had previously kept them relevant. In General Elections 12 and 13, they lost most of their seats, and this year Gerakan was wiped out of national politics while the leaders of MCA and MIC also failed to win reelection. Now some are saying that these parties will or should disband. Is it possible that an UMNO without dispensable patronage could go the same way?
UMNO is not dead yet. It still has 47 seats in the federal parliament and key roles in several states. However, the road back to government will likely be arduous. Unlike Golkar, UMNO probably cannot crawl back in just for the spoils (the most optimistic interpretation is that ill-gotten spoils as a feature of Malaysian politics will also go down under the new/old leadership), and the party will have to find a fresh way to actually win.