Friday, July 11, 2008

UMNO: Smell of corrosion

11 July 2008 Editorial

The announcement that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi will resign in two years’ time and hand over to his deputy, Najib Razak, was not wholly unexpected. After the drubbing of his United Malay National Organization (UMNO) in the March elections, the knives were out for him in certain sections of the party. A significant number of UMNO stalwarts, most prominently former Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, held him personally responsible for what was the party’s worst performance ever.

The power struggle came to a head two moths ago with Dr. Mahathir dramatically resigning his party membership and saying that he would only return once Badawi goes. The aim was to turn shocked party members against the prime minister. It seems to have worked, albeit in a compromise. By announcing that he will go in two years’ time, the prime minister has ensured that he retires gracefully rather than being seen to be hounded out of office.

Ostensibly that should give his successor three years at the helm in which to revive UMNO’s fortunes before the next election. It also permits Dr. Mahathir to return to the party fold to support Najib. However, events are unlikely to be straightforward.

Malaysian politics is in a frenzy at present - and the deputy prime minister is very much part of it. Allegations made in a court trial that he is linked to the gruesome murder last year of a Mongolian translator with whom, it is claimed, he had an affair are unlikely to go away. Moreover, neither he nor UMNO is helped by accusations from senior UMNO figures that the allegations were instigated by Badawi; the UMNO youth leader openly accuses the prime minister of “lies, accusations and nonsense” while Dr. Mahathir has said that there is a concerted campaign against Najib and that as well as Badawi someone else is behind it. It creates an image of a party that is not only deeply split but a nest of conspirators. The latter is made worse with the fresh sodomy accusation against opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim; polls show the overwhelming majority of Malaysians believe them to be conspiracy - and one that has political credentials.

Harold Wilson, the UK’s prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s, famously said that a week is a long time in politics. On that score, two years is an eternity. Anything could happen. Najib could be disgraced, cleared with his honor unimpeached or, perhaps worst, left with a cloud hanging over him, the allegations neither repudiated nor confirmed. If the latter were the case, he probably would not be in any position to become prime minister in 2010, having been sacked long before by Badawi - just as Anwar Ibrahim was sacked as deputy prime minister by Dr. Mahathir Muhamad when his supposed sex scandal surfaced.

But even if everything goes to plan, and Najib becomes prime minister in 2010, it is no guarantee that he will be able to turn UMNO’s fortunes around.

The party’s poor performance in the March elections was not down to Badawi alone. Inflation and rising oil prices were and remain global issues, beyond Malaysia’s control; party corruption and ethnic tensions predated his premiership. Changing leaders is not going to plaster over the cracks in the party that the present set of scandals only makes worse. After decades of rule, there is a definite smell of corrosion in UMNO. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess. But on present reckoning, the guess has to be down even more.

Source: UMNO: Smell of corrosion Arab News, Saudi Arabia