"Team" a toxic word in Umno elections

Umno's three incumbent vice-presidents have gone around the country together during campaigning for the coming party elections. --  PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Umno's three incumbent vice-presidents have gone around the country together during campaigning for the coming party elections. --  PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SINCE campaigning began more than a week ago for Umno's internal elections, the party’s three incumbent vice-presidents have gone around the country together, defending their posts against three challengers.

Just don’t call them a “team”.

It’s a word that’s toxic, thanks to previous experiences with teams in Umno elections. 

With party president Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin unchallenged when nominations closed last month, the hottest fight is for the third rung in the hierarchy - three vice-president spots.

The three incumbents are Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, and Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal. 

Then there are the three challengers, made up of one current and two former chief ministers.

There are also contests for the posts of Women's chief, Youth chiefs and for the 25 elected seats in Umno's Supreme Council, its policy-making body that is often seen as being more powerful than the Malaysian cabinet. 

Malaysia's biggest political party - with 3.4 million members - holds elections every three years. More than 140,000 members will vote for their leaders on Oct 19.

Under election rules, contenders have to be officially brought by the party around the country to introduce themselves and their plans to party members. 

While the candidates could go around campaigning on their own too, they are banned from doing several things in order to cut out "money politics", the polite term in the party for vote-buying.

They cannot, for example, organise big dinners, make promises such as building a new road into a village, or dish out gifts such as expensive sarongs in doing their rounds.

"They can give out their cards but cannot give out campaign manifestos or make promises," Megat Najmuddin Megat Khas, acting chairman of Umno's disciplinary council, told reporters when announcing the official list of candidates last week.

Asked whether candidates could form "teams", he said there were no such rules against it.

Members have noticed that the three incumbents VPs have been going around and talking up one another on stage, and off it. 

As Mr Hishammuddin, 52, said in support of the trio: "We are a strong entity and have proven our compatibility in our ability to work together and in weathering many challenges together. If this is perceived to be a conspiracy then it cannot be denied."

This has fed into unhappy murmurs that PM Najib is adamant at retaining the three Datuk Seris as VPs - Hishammuddin, Zahid, 60, and 55-year old Shafie.

A much-talked about challenger for the VP post is Kedah Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir, 48, a son of former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. He is the youngest of the six men.

The other two are veterans who have been VPs before and were both former chief ministers, Tan Sri Isa Samad from Negeri Sembilan, 63, and Datuk Seri Ali Rustam from Malacca, 64.

But while the trio of incumbents has been campaigning together, they have shied away from saying they are a team.

Umno has a bad history with teams during its elections.

In 1987, Dr Mahathir and co were called Team A in a bitter fight with his then vice-president Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, whose team members were dubbed Team B.Dr Mahathir narrowly won the fight, with the battle splitting the party in two, amid allegations of hundreds of thousands of dollars being thrown around to buy votes. 

The losers led by Tengku Razaleigh broke away to form a rival party, Spirit of '46 - 1946 being the year Umno was formed. The party lasted until 1996, when Tengku Razaleigh and most of its members rejoined Umno.

And in 1993, a team formed to ensure big wins for its members achieved just that, but at the expense of a lot of anger at the grassroots, again because of "money politics".

Then, fast-rising Anwar Ibrahim formed Tim Wawasan (Vision Team) to sweep the polls in a controversial move that made him deputy to party president Dr Mahathir Mohamad. Dr Mahathir lost his deputy, Tun Ghafar Baba. 

Datuk Seri Anwar's team mates won the three VP posts - Najib Razak, Muhyiddin Yassin and Selangor warlord Muhammad Muhammad Taib. 

This set the stage for bitter inter-party fight over the next few years with Mr Anwar moving to strengthen his position and Dr Mahathir blocking him. Mr Anwar was sacked from the party five years later in 1998 amid allegations of sex and corruption at the height of the Asian economic crisis.

So today, Umno leaders tiptoe round the word team, while pretty openly working as, well, a team. 

The strategy is quite dangerous too from a strategic viewpoint, because being part of a team means one is hoping to win together, but could be brought down by a weak team member.