Purge of top Malaysian party leaders tightens chief’s grip

(Bloomberg) – Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi tightened his grip on one of the country’s ruling parties after he purged or sidelined top leaders on Friday, but analysts say the move will only help. little to bolster the popularity of his bloc.

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The United Malays National Organization expelled former health minister Khairy Jamaluddin for violating internal regulations during the recent general elections and suspended former defense minister Hishammuddin Hussein for six years. Both were among those who most opposed Zahid’s leadership and actions after UMNO’s dismal performance in the November elections.

UMNO and the broader Barisan Nasional coalition it leads have lost popularity amid infighting and corruption scandals, with Zahid himself facing corruption charges. The Barisan Nasional had its worst election results, but a suspended parliament led to the formation of a unity government with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan alliance.

“While Zahid has managed to tighten his grip on the party, he may also have narrowed UMNO’s paths to recovery,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, Deputy Managing Director of BowerGroupAsia. “After the sacking and suspension of its leaders, it is difficult to see the party reversing its downward trajectory.”

Earlier this month, Zahid’s position as UMNO president was cemented for another term after the party approved a motion to prevent his two main roles from being contested in internal polls in management scheduled for May.

The political scion Hishammuddin – once vice-president of UMNO – is the cousin of former prime minister Najib Razak and the son of the country’s third prime minister. Hishammuddin’s grandfather, Onn Jaafar, founded UMNO. Khairy was a former candidate for the party’s presidency, and the UMNO Supreme Council also sacked former Housing and Local Government Minister Noh Omar.

Friday’s decision suggests only those loyal to Zahid will be promoted and dissent will not be tolerated, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. However, that is unlikely to make a difference to the party’s future, he said.

“Most Malaysian voters increasingly prefer a more conservative and religious view of the country, and neither Zahid’s more traditional approach nor Khairy’s more reformist approach could satisfy their aspirations,” according to Oh.

In November’s vote, the Islam Se-Malaysia Party, or PAS, became the single party with the most parliamentary seats, but refused to join Anwar’s unity government, saying it would instead act as a “constructive opposition”. The PAS found support mainly in rural areas through its promotion of an Islamist agenda.

Anwar’s coalition now plans to work with UMNO in state elections scheduled for this year. While local polls will not directly affect the composition of parliament, they will be a measure of the new government’s popularity with the public.

By sacking and suspending leaders, Zahid is leading a weaker UMNO into the upcoming national midterm elections, said Wong Chin Huat, a professor and political scientist at Sunway University.

“UMNO is heading for its own killing field, having massacred dissident warlords,” he said.

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