KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - In July, I had a chat with an Umno leader on the then simmering rancour in the party towards Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
The Umno "kluster mahkamah" (court cases cluster, ie, Umno members facing corruption charges in court) is now going for blood, I said then. They say Umno is the biggest party in Malaysia and they want an Umno leader to be PM. Will the grassroots support this cluster if they go against Bersatu, I asked.
"If they play that card, you can't discount the counter-argument that will come. Now the situation is static. But if that faction goes around the country saying that they want the party to cut ties with Bersatu, then the other faction will respond to counter them," said the Umno leader, who did not want to be identified.
That "other faction" is the "kluster kabinet" (Umno MPs in the Perikatan Nasional Cabinet).
Fast forward to 2021. What the Umno leader predicted has come true.
Kluster mahkamah has been pushing for Umno, via the grassroots and supreme council, to cut ties with Bersatu. So far, it has not got the endorsement to do so.
Kluster kabinet has responded to counter kluster mahkamah's move: Federal Territories Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa, who was recently removed as Barisan Nasional secretary-general, revealed an alleged plot by kluster mahkamah to work with DAP and support PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim for the prime minister's post.
There's also open rebellion against Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. A handful of divisions, especially from the youth wing, have asked him to step down, citing a lack of leadership and direction.
Paya Besar Umno division chief Datuk Ahmad Tajuddin Sulaiman pointed out that the legal cases against some Umno leaders are a "heavy burden" that hinders Umno's efforts to rise again.
Ahmad Zahid faces 47 charges - 12 for criminal breach of trust, eight for corruption and 27 for money laundering - involving tens of millions of ringgit in funds belonging to Yayasan Akalbudi.
He is in a historically unique position as party president. He is the first Umno president since 1957 not to be prime minister. He is also the first to be charged in court.
He doesn't have the carrots and sticks a PM can wield. But he still can command some kind of control over his party's rebellious leaders as he signs the watikah (endorsement letter) for them to contest using the Umno symbol.
However, the Prime Minister is from Bersatu and with the power of incumbency, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin holds sway over some of the 38 Umno MPs.
There is a big question about whether Ahmad Zahid will buckle under pressure from rebellious Umno divisions and step down as party president, just like he did temporarily when he went on garden leave for six months in 2018.
Deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan stepped in as acting president then.
But it is unlikely that Zahid will go on garden leave again, though. Those against him can attempt to remove him in the party polls, which will probably be held this year.
What we are seeing now is "Umno: Civil War".
According to Annuar, Umno is split into three factions: those who do not want to cooperate with Bersatu, those who do want to cooperate with Muhyiddin's party, and those in the middle.
For consistency's sake, let's call the third group "kluster bukan mahkamah dan kabinet". However, not all Umno leaders facing court cases are in kluster mahkamah and not all Umno ministers are in kluster kabinet.
Like a nasty couple's fight, Umno: Civil War is all about "he said, she said". Each cluster has reasons to oppose the others. For example, those in kluster kabinet and kluster bukan mahkamah dan kabinet are concerned that their president is more interested in saving himself than the party.
The self-interest accusation is also used by kluster mahkamah against kluster kabinet.
"They are more inclined towards the Prime Minister than to their party president. They are more loyal to their self-interest, which is to protect their Cabinet post, than to the party's interest," an Umno leader from the kluster mahkamah told me.
Those in kluster mahkamah and kluster bukan mahkamah dan kabinet are worried that Bersatu, with the PM's power, will "eat up" Umno.
"Bersatu has taken 15 of our MPs. Do we want to give up those seats to Bersatu in GE15? If we are not careful, Bersatu will dominate us, " said the Umno leader from the kluster mahkamah.
There are allegations that Bersatu was involved in "influencing" those Umno MPs to cross over to beef up the party. There are also claims that some of Umno's top bloggers are now loyal to Bersatu paymasters.
The kluster kabinet argues that Umno can't go it alone in the 15th General Election. To win big, the party needs to ally itself with the Perikatan Nasional coalition comprising Bersatu and PAS.
However, those in kluster mahkamah believe that Umno can stand alone and form a coalition government with partners such as DAP and PKR after GE15 results are out.
Those against Bersatu see it as Umno's evil twin: Both are going for the same voter demographic but only one Malay party can dominate.
This could clearly be seen after the Sabah polls last year. Bersatu got the Chief Minister post which had been held by Umno for 15 consecutive years before that. It also won seats that had traditionally been Umno's.
And, of course, Bersatu took those 15 Umno MPs and holds the PM's post. Those in the kluster mahkamah and kluster bukan mahkamah dan kabinet want that to change post-GE15.
The writer is a columnist with The Star. The Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.