Umno’s internal strife threatens party’s hold in state elections

Umno's Tambun division chief Aminuddin Md Hanafiah (centre, wearing sunglasses) with other party members and supporters in Perak's Tambun town on Saturday, Nomination Day. Umno's hold over Perak is tenuous ahead of Malaysia's 15th General Election. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

KUALA LUMPUR - Tensions within Malaysia’s long-ruling Umno party could threaten its hold over Perlis and Perak, two of the three states that will run legislative elections simultaneously with Malaysia’s general election.

Only Perlis, Perak and Pahang – all currently governed by Umno – are holding state elections along with parliamentary elections on Nov 19.

However, Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s decision to drop several high-profile candidates from its list, including in Perlis and Perak, has not only angered some influential leaders but also halted election preparations in some wards.

Long-serving MP and former Umno supreme council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman was dropped as a candidate for the Pasir Salak parliamentary seat in Perak, triggering claims of “disunity” in the Umno leadership in that division.

Umno’s hold over Perak is tenuous. The Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance lost the state after the 2018 election, but returned to helm the government in 2020 after defections caused the Pakatan Harapan administration to collapse.

Before the state assembly was dissolved for the Nov 19 polls, BN held only 25 of the 59 seats in the assembly, but ruled via a pact with Perikatan Nasional (PN), which it will face as an electoral rival in the polls.

In Perlis, caretaker Federal Territories Minister Shahidan Kassim was dropped as a candidate for the Arau parliamentary seat, leading him to shut down the party operations centre in the constituency. Datuk Seri Shahidan then opted to still contest the seat, but on a PN ticket instead. He has held Arau for four terms and served four terms as a state assemblyman in Perlis.

Umno had 10 seats in the 15-seat Perlis state assembly before its dissolution, but Mr Shahidan’s switch to PN could lead to BN losing its control of key state constituencies. BN’s seat share in the state assembly could further dwindle, threatening its standing in Perlis, a state it has never lost.

Both Datuk Seri Tajuddin and Mr Shahidan were seen as allies of caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is locked in a power struggle with Umno chief Zahid heading into the elections.

However, Umno’s internal troubles are unlikely to threaten its position in Pahang, a traditional stronghold state for Malaysia’s biggest party. Datuk Mohd Nizar Najib, the son of imprisoned former premier Najib Razak, is set to make his electoral debut in the Peramu Jaya state assembly seat. The seat is located within the parliamentary constituency of Pekan, which Najib has held since 1986 but will not be defending because of his jail sentence.

Bower Group Asia director Adib Zalkapli told The Sunday Times that Umno’s infighting could lead to campaigning that is “not smooth” in these states. But who the voters choose at the ballot box will still depend on other factors.

“Voters don’t decide based on internal politics; the real competition is taking place outside the political parties,” he said.

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