The biggest party in the Malaysian government has found itself at a crossroads after former Umno president Najib Razak was convicted of corruption and money laundering in a historic decision by the High Court on Tuesday.
Despite calls from Umno’s former youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin for the party to “move on” from Najib – who is currently disqualified from contesting any election – many senior leaders have publicly shown their support instead of following the conviction.
Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the party would have to “do something” following the verdict, and hinted yesterday that the party would re-evaluate its “sharing arrangement” in the government.
In a later statement, he said “serious attention” should be given to the judgment of the court.
“Umno/BN (Barisan Nasional) will overcome this judgment in the best way while defending our relationships within BN, Muafakat Nasional and Perikatan Nasional.”
His statements came a day after Mr Khairy, a Cabinet minister in Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government, urged the party to move on and rebuild. Mr Khairy had failed in his bid to challenge Ahmad Zahid for Umno’s presidency following the party’s historic loss in the 2018 election.
The son-in-law of former premier Abdullah Badawi, he is often seen as the face of moderation within the Malay nationalist party.
Umno is the biggest component in the five-month-old Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin, with 38 MPs.
In contrast, Mr Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the second-biggest party in the PN administration, has 32 MPs.
Analysts said Umno is currently divided, with different camps pushing the party in different directions, but asserted that Najib still holds sway within the party despite his graft conviction.
Universiti Utara Malaysia analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani told The Straits Times: “The reality is Umno is divided. Some want to leave Perikatan (Nasional).
“Some want to move on, and not drag this (Najib) case (with them).”
The current No. 2 in Umno, Mr Mohamad Hassan, who flanked Najib in court on Tuesday, had previously called for a snap election to be held in order to return the mandate to the people, underlining the party’s fragile relationship with Mr Muhyiddin’s Bersatu party in PN.
However, one partner that both Umno and Najib seem to have firmly on their side is Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), with whom they have another partnership, Muafakat Nasional.
Umno leaders such as Mr Puad Zarkashi have asserted that Umno is better off on a Muafakat Nasional platform than with PN.
PAS leaders, including president Hadi Awang, visited Najib at his home immediately after the court proceedings on Tuesday, with Najib describing them as “true friends”.
Datuk Seri Hadi expressed confidence that Najib would be able to clear his name in the higher courts.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said: “Umno, along with PAS, actually won 75 per cent of Malay votes in the last election.
“The mistake was PAS split Umno’s votes. But now that they are together, you are seeing them win a string of by-elections.”
Dr Oh said Najib is still a “plus” for Umno even though he is currently unable to contest an election, but some factions within the party would not mind if it were to set the former premier aside.
Dr Azizuddin said Najib could still field his son Mohd Nizar Najib, also an Umno member, to replace him in his home constituency of Pekan should he be unable to contest elections – and as a result maintain his influence.
“As a former prime minister, he can influence Umno’s decision. He can pull off something to show he can still dictate things in the party.
“However, this is subject to Umno allowing it to happen.”