KUALA LUMPUR,. Umno members’ backing for Tan Sri Isa Samad for the Port Dickson seat casts the spotlight on the cracks within a seemingly united party that has declared a boycott on the parliamentary by-election next Saturday, political observers have said.
But Isa’s support from within Umno also goes beyond party politics and shows the former Negri Sembilan mentri besar’s strong personal appeal among his loyalists as he guns for a parliamentary seat in the state which he had governed for 22 years, political analysts told Malay Mail.
Lim Teck Ghee said Isa was a “discredited” former leader from Umno who still has some support from party members who had allegedly benefited from his “handouts”.
“The patron-client relationship continues to explain the conduct of many Umno party members of the older generation as well as the members of other BN parties.
“He knows that he will lose but he and his supporters want to show that they are still a force in Umno if not in national politics,” he told Malay Mail when contacted.
Isa was reported to have been suspended from Umno for three years from June 2005 to June 2008, after he was found guilty of engaging in money politics that led to him winning the most votes for the three Umno vice-president spots available in the 2004 party polls.
As for Isa’s decision to leave Umno to contest in Port Dickson, Lim said this indicates a “badly splintered party with lukewarm support for the present president who is unable to stamp his authority on key issues”.
“Rather than bolstering the party’s credibility and image, Isa’s candidacy will erode it further,” he said.
Lim claimed that Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had little or no control over various party leaders and states.
“He wanted to support the PAS candidate to advance the relationship between the two parties. Now that Isa is in the contest, Zahid is the other big loser,” he said.
In the past few days, Isa had reportedly revealed that MIC members will still help him to campaign among the Indian community, while Umno members were also reportedly defying the party decision by choosing to campaign for him.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Professor Sivamurugan Pandian also highlighted Isa’s loyalists despite his image being “tarnished with scandals” such as money politics and those tied to Felda Global Ventures.
“The supporters are loyal to him rather than the party and in fact willing to take the risk to be sacked.
“[As] someone who was the Teluk Kemang Umno chief since 1978-2004 and MB N9 1982-2004, I think he is bigger than the party for those who would have benefited from him,” he told Malay Mail.
Isa was also the assemblyman for two state constituencies within the Port Dickson seat — Linggi (1978-2004) and Bagan Pinang (2009-2013).
Sivamurugan also said that the existence of factions within Umno is obvious, with some also allegedly supporting Pakatan Harapan’s candidate Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and independent candidate Mohd Saiful Bukhari.
But this does not necessarily mean that Zahid has no stronghold within Umno as there is no strong movement nationwide to back such an idea, Sivamurugan said.
“But he can also use this to clean up the party to retain those who are loyal to party rather than individuals,” he said.
Campaign aid to Isa insignificant
Think-tank Ilham Centre’s acting executive director Azlan Zainal however said that only a small circle within Umno who were formerly with Isa was helping him to campaign, saying that the effect of such assistance would not be “significant”.
But going beyond campaigning, Azlan said there were two key reasons for those within Umno and MIC who will show support for Isa by casting their votes for him.
This will be due to Umno and MIC veterans who have a good relationship with Isa and as a “protest” vote against the senior Umno leadership that is also tied to Zahid’s weakness as a leader and Umno’s splintering since its shock electoral defeat, Azlan said.
“This is Isa’s protest towards the central Umno and Negri Sembilan Umno leadership,” he told Malay Mail, noting that Isa was a rival to former Negri Sembilan mentri besar and current Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hassan.
The other reason will be Isa’s slight advantage as a local candidate who was also Negri Sembilan mentri besar for 22 years, with Isa also enjoying greater acceptance among the grassroots due to him always being “friendly, approachable and loving to go on the ground”.
Despite the uphill trek faced by Isa in the PH stronghold of Port Dickson, he enjoys a current early lead among Malay voters and advantage with the Bagan Pinang area being a stronghold of BN, Azlan said.
This has caused Anwar to focus more of his campaigns in Malay-dominated areas to ensure a split in Malay votes that will favour him, Azlan said.
Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser of Pacific Research Centre, said the aid from Umno and MIC towards Isa was due to his local appeal and their desire to “harass Anwar a bit”.
Umno’s decision to boycott and not field a candidate in the Port Dickson by-election, while at the same time seemingly allowing party members to assist Isa gave off a confusing message about the party’s intentions in finding political allies, Oh said.
“I can’t figure out why on one hand rumors are rife that Umno and Anwar are courting while on the other hand they do this,” he said.
“It can’t be that the Umno president is letting his subordinates run wild. But if not then how [does] that square with flirting with Anwar?” he added, having noted that the many factions within Umno usually only show themselves near party elections and that the senior party leadership would otherwise not be seen as being in charge.
Oh had highlighted the “nuanced dynamics” now, with Anwar allegedly interested in co-opting Umno in anticipation of a showdown with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and with Umno eager to be part of the federal government again.
The seven-corner fight for the Port Dickson seat will be held next Saturday.