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FEER: Shaking the Party Grip on Power
By Lorien Holland

23/2/2001 12:03 pm Fri

[Bukan mudah untuk menggoncangkan Mahathir walaupun banyak peluru sudah ditabur kerana rakyat Malaysia mudah ditipu di saat-saat akhir pilihanraya oleh media. Mahathir mungkin akan kekal berkuasa tetapi dia semakin lemah kerana berkonfrontasi dengan sesiapa sahaja yang menegur tindak-tanduknya walaupun kritik itu benar semata. Budaya takut menjadi dendam tersimpan dalam Umno dan minda rakyat jelata.

Tampaknya pilihanraya atau rapat raksaksa sahajalah kuasa untuk menumbangkannya kerana tidak ada pendekar sanggup berhadapan dengannya untuk berakhir dengan lebam dan terperonyok di dalam penjara dengan dakwaan yang tidak berpijak di alam nyata.

Tetapi keangkuhan seseorang itu kadang-kadang menjerat dirinya sendiri juga. Sokongan orang melayu sudah terpudar dengan teruknya, sehingga rakyat Kubang Pasu sendiri sudah menolaknya sedangkan mereka itu dulu penyokong kuat Umno yang teramat setia. Jika rakyat Indonesia dan Filipina boleh melakukannya, mengapa rakyat Malaysia masih terlena? Pihak BA perlu mencari jawapannya segera kerana pidato sahaja belum memadai untuk mendidik rakyat yang ada. Sakti itu sentiasa ada, hanya kita yang tidak mencarinya... sedangkan ia tidak jauh berada dari kita. - Editor]

From The Far Eastern Economic Review
Issue cover-dated 1st March 2001

Shaking the Party Grip on Power

A Malay rally unexpectedly turns on Umno; fears grow that paralysis within the party leadership may even lead to its half-century of political dominance ending with the next general election

By Lorien Holland/KUALA LUMPUR

ACCUSING PRIME MINISTER Mahathir Mohamad of cronyism and authoritarianism is the bread and butter of Malaysia's opposition parties. But on February 4, it was card-carrying members of his own ruling coalition who broke ranks to do that very same thing. Their attack at a 3,000-strong rally in the heart of Kuala Lumpur made politicians across the spectrum sit up sharply.

"What happened was very significant," says Mohamad Ezam Nor, head of the youth wing of the opposition National Justice Party, known as Keadilan in Malay. "It is very rare to see people from his own party coming out against him."

For sure, Mahathir has come under threat in the past. Senior colleagues in the United Malays National Organization, which leads the ruling coalition government, came close to ousting him in 1987. Eleven years later, he faced street protests, a divided party and a barrage of international criticism for his sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

In both those cases, he fought back and won. But this time is different. The threat to Mahathir, 75, is not from a physical rival, but from a creeping fear that the opposition just might break the ruling coalition's monopoly on power, held since 1957, and win the next general election in 2004. He faces a snowballing of whispers--spread in part by several senior Umno officials--saying he is playing into the hands of the opposition and is no longer up to the job.

"Power has never been so challenged as it is now," says Patricia Martinez, a senior research fellow on religion and culture at the University of Malaya. "Umno has been used to having a population that supports them. And now there are divergent voices, they appear to have little idea where they are heading."

Ibrahim Ali, the organizer of the February 4 rally at the Putra World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur, tapped into this groundswell of Umno unease with his calls to defend the party and win back Malay voters from an increasingly powerful opposition. Despite a reputation as a rabble-rousing politician (who sided with Mahathir's challengers in 1987), Ibrahim won Mahathir's prior consent for the event--billed to champion Malay rights under the umbrella of the newly-formed Malay Action Front, or MAF.

But only two of the dozen speakers took the established route to shore up Malay support by focusing on the "threat" of the ethnic-Chinese population. To the delight of the crowd and the horror of Mahathir's supporters, other speakers--who were largely sidelined Umno politicians--went straight for the jugular: Malay support was falling off because Umno was out of touch. Umno had to listen to its electorate and wipe out corruption and cronyism. Mahathir needed to clean up his cabinet. In particular, the government's decision to buy back a controlling share in Malaysia Airlines, or MAS, from a politically connected businessman was criticized. The cost of the buyback--over twice the current market price of MAS's shares--is an opposition rallying cry, but the government has kept a stony silence about the deal.

After the rally, Ibrahim insisted his efforts were aimed at supporting the party leadership, not undermining it. He told the REVIEW: "Our group is like a chilli. We taste very hot, but without us food is bland. The opposition is capitalizing on the blandness, so we want the government to speak up and publicly address these issues. They may have a good explanation [for deals like MAS], but they have yet to give it and stop the opposition capitalizing on their silence."

But many analysts wondered whether a hidden agenda to weaken Mahathir was starting to play out from inside his own party. "If the speeches had been uttered at an opposition meeting, the speakers would have found themselves charged with sedition and worse," said Harakah, the newspaper of the Islamic Party, or Pas, which is the lead opposition party. "What [MAF] aims to do is nothing as serious as what it did. It openly challenged the legitimacy of Dr. Mahathir to remain in office."

Mahathir came to a similar conclusion. The 47-member Umno Supreme Council spent two-and-a-half hours of a closed-door session on February 10 criticizing the group. According to three members present, no one spoke in favour of the MAF, even though Ibrahim claimed support from more than 10 members of the council before the meeting.


In later public comments, Mahathir said the MAF effectively created a rival political party. "I really don't understand them because when they saw me before, they said they want to hold this thing to foster Malay unity," he said.

More significantly, the bombshell of the rally failed to galvanize Umno into an offensive to win back support. Instead, Mahathir resolved to silence the MAF by cutting all Umno support for the group and ensuring that permits for further public meetings were refused. Prior to the Supreme Council meeting, the MAF had received invitations to speak at 18 locations around Malaysia and planned a roadshow to reach out to the electorate.

But for mainstream Umno politicians, Ibrahim's foray to win back the Malay vote only muddied the waters. "Many of the issues raised are issues that we are also concerned with. But now that Ibrahim Ali has had a go, it makes them even harder for us to address, as they get discounted out of hand, along with Ibrahim Ali," says a senior Umno member.

"There is a feeling of paralysis that no one is brave enough to stand up and tell him [Mahathir] that it is time to go because the voices of protest from the grassroots are multiplying," he adds.

In contrast to Umno's failure to act, the opposition--which has never come even close to winning a general election and appeared unlikely ever to do so until Mahathir sacked Anwar--is powering ahead. Its high point so far was a victory in the Lunas by-election in late November, in a seat that had been a government stronghold since independence. Since the MAF rally highlighted problems within Umno, the opposition has held four rallies demanding Mahathir's resignation. One rally in his own constituency on February 14 drew thousands of people. Riot police used tear gas and water cannon to subdue the crowds.

Key issues affecting the swing away from Umno are the role of Islam, a lack of government transparency and a positive discrimination policy that is meant to aid Malays, but is widely perceived to help rich Malay businessmen more than others. Mahathir contests charges of cronyism and lack of transparency and warns that an increasingly "Islamicized" state will widen divisions between Malaysia's three main racial groups.

However, according to Umno sources, well over half the all-important ethnic-Malay vote appears to have already swung toward the opposition. Of the remaining 40% of the electorate, ethnic Indians remain largely loyal to the ruling coalition, but the Chinese vote is wavering.

As ethnic Chinese make up 27% of the population, their voting power could make or break the government--given that the ethnic-Malay vote is split between Umno and the opposition. But instead of wooing Malaysian-Chinese, Mahathir has only alienated significant numbers by floating the idea of a Chinese bogeyman in a bid to win back disillusioned Malays.

"The oldest trick in the book is to attack the Chinese to win the Malay vote but it was a miscalculation that it would still work," says Kua Kia Soong, principal of the New Era College near Kuala Lumpur and a former opposition MP.

Umno meanwhile is trying to recover the Malay vote by coaxing Pas into "Malay Unity" talks and has raised the idea of Pas even joining the ruling coalition. But the opposition is hitting back, luring Chinese with promises of respecting Chinese culture and allowing more Chinese schools. "We can see the ground is shifting, but we can't address most of these issues without making him [Mahathir] angry," says a veteran Malay politician who feels Umno has worked itself into a corner. "If you stay in power too long, you have to rejuvenate yourself, but any attempt to improve the party's standing is seen as a move against Mahathir."

Mahathir has stated he will not contest the election in 2004. But that is three years away, and he remains determinedly vague over any timetable to hand over power. At a recent meeting with British businesspeople he discounted rumours of imminent retirement, saying it was time to calm down "feelings and emotions" and get on with running the country.

On paper, he has an impressive mandate, with his coalition enjoying a two-thirds majority in parliament. Factional fighting in Umno's leadership is nowhere near the levels of 1987 when he narrowly won a leadership contest. The political consensus is that the premier has the full support of three key players: Deputy Prime Minister and anointed successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin and Defence Minister Najib Razak. Abdullah, once thought unable to survive post-Mahathir, has shown himself made of tougher stuff.

Mahathir said recently he believes the Umno coalition will win the next election, albeit with a reduced majority. Still, the allegiance of the Umno rank-and-file is unclear. There are no political opinion polls in Malaysia and division elections in April, when Umno's grassroots organizations elect delegates to the Umno general assembly, are being watched cautiously by the leadership. According to an Umno Supreme Council member, almost all incumbent division chiefs face challengers, and the political leaning of the winners will show just how accurate Ibrahim and others were in warning that Umno is losing its grassroots support.

Theoretically, delegates to the Umno general assembly could pass a vote of no-confidence in the leadership and force Mahathir's resignation. But the assembly is heavily choreographed, and such a move seems unlikely. Also unlikely are street protests like those in the Philippines and Indonesia that toppled Joseph Estrada and have come close to doing the same to Abdurrahman Wahid.

"I think the tide has turned, but people will just sit it out and wait for the next election," says the veteran Umno politician, delivering a warning sure to send a shiver up the spines of Umno stalwarts. "Then Pas, Keadilan and the DAP [Chinese opposition party] will form the next government. The second deputy prime minister will be Chinese, Pas will agree to implement Islamic law only in the Islamic states and that will be that."