For nearly half a century, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) imposed single-party dominance in Malaysia. UMNO’s internal party elections, Malaysia’s general elections and the country’s judicial proceedings are three stand-out mechanisms that helped maintain this dominance. But as their functions have been transfigured, they have become the objects of bitter contention between rival leaders and factions in UMNO.
Traditionally, the UMNO president and vice president refreshed their leadership by standing — usually unchallenged — in party elections. Other aspirants were permitted to contest the lesser vice-presidencies and Supreme Council seats. The UMNO president would then approve party candidates and subordinate coalition partners to wage general elections. While the iterated victories that followed were manipulated, they lent legitimacy to the UMNO president’s claim to the prime ministership and the party’s dominance. UMNO leaders then turned to the courts — usually compliant — for reconciliation or absolution in any later disputes or corruption scandals.
These patterns, instituted during the mid-1970s, were shattered by UMNO’s loss in the 2018 general election. Mass level resentment towards former UMNO president and prime minister Najib Razak, who had recklessly amassed patronage resources and personal wealth during his tenure, was the main trigger for this defeat. His behaviours, peaking in the notorious 1MDB scandal, involved his channelling some US$700 million of missing state funds to his own bank accounts.
It was after the UMNO-led government’s displacement by an opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan, that the linkages between party elections, general elections and judicial proceedings began to unravel. In February 2020, through parliamentary manoeuvring and monarchical interventions, UMNO found its way back into power, though as part of a shaky four-way coalition. Of these parties, UMNO still held the most parliamentary seats. But weakened by electoral defeat and the court cases mounted against Najib over 1MDB, UMNO yielded the prime ministership to Muhyiddin Yassin, the president of the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu), UMNO’s nominal ally at the time.
In its reduced circumstances, UMNO grew factionalised. One group, labelled the ‘old guard’, demanded that UMNO break from Bersatu to reassert its single-party dominance. Another faction called for ongoing power-sharing. UMNO’s old guard centred on Najib who, despite being ensnared in court cases, used his charisma to rekindle his popularity in the Malay–Muslim community. By appealing to the loyalties of UMNO’s parliamentarians and high-level supporters — increasingly forgetful of 1MDB — the old guard succeeded in ousting Muhyiddin.
But with their image still blighted by court cases, the old guard was unable to lay claim to the prime ministership. In August 2021, they acquiesced in Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s rise to the position, despite him heading the faction that embraced Bersatu and only holding a vice-presidency position in UMNO. This ruptured the long-standing alignment between the top party and government offices. Accordingly, Ismail has often been dismissed as an ‘accidental prime minister’, destined to be shunted aside by the old guard if it is ever fully rehabilitated.
UMNO’s factions skirmished for control over the once trusty medley of party elections, general elections and judicial proceedings. The old guard, in their bid to restore UMNO’s single-party dominance and their place at its helm, succeeded in amending UMNO’s constitution in July 2022 to delay the party election until after the general election. This would enable Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the incumbent party president and close associate of Najib, to select his favourites as UMNO’s candidates in the general election.
The old guard also pushed for an immediate general election. Together with candidates from East Malaysia, they sensed victory, even though they had to break from precedent by fabricating a ruling coalition after the election, rather than before. In this institutional sequencing, unprecedented in Malaysia, the old guard might then cement their grip on the party, reinstitute UMNO’s dominance over the state apparatus and stave off judicial proceedings.
Meanwhile, UMNO’s accommodative faction resisted the delay in party elections, hoping that Ismail Sabri might wrest away the presidency and then lead the party, along with Bersatu, in contesting the general election.
General elections in Malaysia have since grown to be more genuinely determinative. Judicial proceedings have followed suit. The courts have shown new willingness to punish leaders for graft. On 23 August 2022, the Federal Court upheld the earlier conviction and sentencing of Najib over charges involving 1MDB. He is now in Kajang prison, emerging only to make court appearances in other 1MDB cases. His wife, Rosmah Mansor, has also been convicted on corruption charges. Ahmad Zahid faces serious charges over corruption too.
Ismail Sabri has been handed a double fillip. The old guard which loomed over him has been diminished. At the same time, in contesting the next general election, which must be held by September 2023, Ismail can appeal to the grievances of Malay-Muslim voters over Najib’s ‘unjust’ fate. On winning the general election, Ismail Sabri would likely rise to UMNO’s presidency in the party election to follow. He might even go on to restore UMNO’s single-party dominance and the rhythms of the trio of institutions that once underpinned it — tamping down electoral competitiveness and judicial independence.
Alternatively, he might still be pushed out by the old guard — which would bring about a similar re-equilibration of institutions. In this scenario, Najib’s return to the prime ministership grows distinctly more imaginable. As a first step, he is now seeking a pardon from the nation’s king.
William Case is Professor and Head of the School of Politics, History and International Relations at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.