Dissent against Umno president Zahid exposes deep split in Malaysia's ruling party

In this photo taken on March 28, 2021, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is opening the party's general assembly.
In this photo taken on March 28, 2021, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is opening the party's general assembly.PHOTO: UMNO

KUALA LUMPUR - An open broadside against Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi this week from one of his most experienced party colleagues has exposed the deep split within the biggest party in Malaysia's ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.

Six-term Umno lawmaker Nazri Abdul Aziz, a former cabinet minister, has claimed that Zahid has lost the support of 25 out of the 38 Umno lawmakers in Malaysia's Parliament, following the latter's alleged overtures to back opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim as the next prime minister.

Datuk Seri Nazri claimed that the 25 MPs have signed a "letter of consent" that their stance on issues related to the opposition chief will now be represented by Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.

Mr Nazri claims that this is because Zahid had falsely represented the stance of the Umno lawmakers in a letter to the Malaysian King in October in an attempt to elevate Mr Anwar as the prime minister.

​"Zahid has committed a serious offence - he has misled the Agong (King) into thinking that a majority of us (Umno MPs) support Anwar (as PM). I want to pursue this and make a decision about (Zahid)'s demeanour, once and for all," Mr Nazri told The Straits Times on Saturday (June 26).

The signature campaign has divided Umno anew.

The party has for months wavered between supporting the 15-month old PN government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and abandoning it.

Still, most Umno members are wary of backing Mr Anwar, whose opposition coalition includes Umno's main nemesis, the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party.

Zahid is widely thought to be keen to oust the PN government as he remains mired in dozens of court cases for corruption despite his party's strong support of Tan Sri Muhyiddin's rise as prime minister in last year's political crisis.

Umno's general assembly in March decided that the party would remain in the government until the next national polls, by which time it would cut ties with PM Muhyiddin's Bersatu party, which has 31 MPs.

However, days after Mr Nazri revealed his move, the party's supreme council - filled with leaders who backed Zahid - decided to postpone Umno's internal elections, due this year, by 18 months.

This would mean that Zahid will remain party chief heading into the next general elections, which might be held at the end of the year, and have a big say in picking who would contest the Umno seats.

Mr Nazri told ST: "We disagree with the Umno elections being postponed by 18 months. The decision is being circulated through messages... it cannot be held as a valid decision (to postpone), you must bring it to a meeting."

Both Mr Nazri and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin are not members of the supreme council, Umno's top decision-making body.

A meeting was not formally called to decide on the postponement, but consent was sought among all supreme council members online due to Malaysia's ongoing coronavirus lockdown.

Johor Umno's deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed said the postponement of the elections keeps Zahid in solid footing as the party leader.

Mr Zahid has dismissed Mr Nazri's assertions that he lost the backing of Umno lawmakers as a "cartoon plot".

Mr Hishammuddin, who is a strong supporter of the Muhyiddin-led PN government, has remained silent.

But his office said in a brief statement that a letter allegedly written to the King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, claiming he had the backing of the Umno-led Barisan Nasional coalition to be the next prime minister was false.

The national palace, Istana Negara, has lodged a police report over the fake letter.

Political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University said Zahid's position has been "precarious from the start", as he lacked control over MPs such as Mr Nazri despite having control of Umno's party machinery.

"Because of his court cases and his close association with Anwar, his move always raises suspicion that he would sacrifice the party's interests for his own," Professor Wong told ST.

Prof Wong, however, said that the split in Umno improves the position of Mr Muhyiddin, who has a single-digit majority in Parliament, but "not by much".