PETALING JAYA,. Umno will soon choose a new president to guide the once formidable Malay nationalist party on its path to recovery, after a disastrous general election showing that permanently erased its previous air of invincibility.
Seven leaders have expressed their desire to helm Umno, but for the party’s three million or so members, only three are considered serious contenders.
The trio are party stalwart Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, vice-president and acting president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and outgoing Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.
Before they grapple with the choice, however, Umno members must decide if they will remain with the party now at its lowest ebb in virtually every area — from morale to finances — or to leave before the it declines further still.
The natural choice for those looking to leave would be the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) that helped defeat Umno.
The two parties are deeply intertwined, as the shared “Bersatu” in their names suggest. PPBM is also enticing because its ideology is similar to Umno’s.
Umno deserters will find PPBM to be a familiar home away from home and will likely already know most of the leaders and members within.
For those who choose to stay, they must grapple with the difficult decision of who to elect as the party’s next president to replace the tainted Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
The choice is critical as the individual chosen will likely determine what happens to the wounded Umno.
A wrong decision could lead to the demise of the country’s oldest party, handing rivals in the ruling Pakatan Harapan the ultimate political gift on a platter.
Talk within Umno is that Najib, despite his acknowledgement of Zahid as the acting party president following his own departure, is keen for a candidate without “baggage” to succeed him.
It is believed that Najib’s rationale is for Umno to have a leader who will not be vulnerable to close scrutiny by the government and its array of law enforcement agencies, else the person may end up spending most of his time fending off attacks over scandals.
The 81-year-old Kelantan prince known as Ku Li fits this bill easily, which was likely why early support for his presidency bid was strong. However, many in Umno’s younger generation believe a complete changing of the guard is needed for the party to renew itself.
While Zahid is younger at 65, his coterie of supporters is largely those who have been with him since his Umno Youth days of the 1980s.
This leaves Khairy as a tempting choice for younger members seeking a complete overhaul of the party.
Khairy’s selection would completely buck the deeply feudalistic party’s fascination with hierarchy and succession plans, but the outgoing Umno Youth chief has also been the only one to lay down his plans to rebuild Umno.
With the political upheaval sweeping the country, however, Umno members no longer have the luxury of observing their party’s natural order and may be more willing to take drastic steps to protect the endangered animal that is Umno.
Umno may have won 54 federal seats — all in Malay majority areas — in the general election, but the party must be wary not to think it can still lay claim to representing the country’s dominant community.
To do so, it must compete head-on with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s PPBM and without the resources that Umno once had at its disposal.
With this in mind, Umno’s younger members believe that it can no longer be business as usual, and are chafing to find an opening that will lead to the reforms they feel the party needs for its survival.
Within the present Umno, Ku Li has a peerless track record, but Umno remembers that he could not beat Dr Mahathir before and was forced to venture out of the party to pursue his ambitions.
Zahid remains popular with many in the party but he is inextricably linked to Najib and the latter’s flood of scandals. He has also been painfully tight-lipped about how he would turn the party around, often still appearing to play second fiddle to Najib who no longer holds any position in Umno.
As for Khairy, his biggest disadvantage is that his elevation would not follow the natural progression from Umno Youth chief to vice-president and, eventually, the deputy presidency or even the presidency.
But desperate times call for desperate measures.
With the 146,000 members with direct voting rights making their choices at the end of the month, the youth who form more than half the number may just be enough for Khairy to become the next political development to take the country by surprise.