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The BN eats into itself after it decimates the Opposition

AT OTHER TIMES, THE National Front (BN) could parade its brilliant showing in the 2004 General Elections as proof of its continued relevance. It did awhile this time, but not for long. The Election Commission, eager for a BN victory, allowed rules and regulations to be broken at will, in a frenzy of edicts and acts, often outside the law, that in the end suggested the polling could have been flawed. The BN, of course, is unconcerned. It is in power, by hook or by crook, that is all that matters, and quickly moved to form the government. This could not wait, for far more important was to annoint the new prime minister. Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had to win big so he could be UMNO president by acclamation, not by contest, at its election later in the year. This is when the BN realised with a shock that too good a victory could cause it ill health and worse. With 198 seats in a parliament of 219, and overwhelming control of 11 of the 12 seats - Sarawak did not have state assembly elections - it revealed internal flaws, in every BN party, and hidden deliberately in the runup to the polls for an outward superficial unity.

This was the most serious in UMNO. Pak Lah found, to his horror, that UMNO warlords, kept under a tight leash by his predecessor, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, now flex their muscles with impunity. The Perak mentri besar, Dato' Seri Tajol Rosli Ghazali, made it clear before the elections he would decide who the Perak candidates for state assembly and parliament would be when he said all who lost in 1999 are out. But so it was it in every BN party. Pak Lah has two tasks in front of him: get elected as UMNO president, and keep the warlords at bay. Whilst Tun Mahathir now admits his unpopularity with the Malaysian public was such that his resignation as prime minister provided the fillip for the BN's runaway success. That could be so, but he left an UMNO and, by extension, BN, collapsing from within. Since the virtual UMNO coup after the 1969 racial riots, the general elections was to put UMNO in power. There is a coalition of course. But it did not matter who was in it. At the moment it is the BN. Its members are no more than handmaidens to UMNO.

But UMNO made one important mistake, which it wants to continue making: its two top leaders, however they came to the office, should never ever be challenged. Tun Mahathir Mohamed turned that into an art, after he nearly lost to a challenger in 1987, to make the two top positions unchallengeable. He tinkered with the rules to fit the occasion, and sideline those he did not like. He could because he would brutally push aside any who would disagree. He wanted a quiescent following - in UMNO, in the supreme council, in the cabinet. He brooked no challenge - cabinet ministers were dismissed because they spoke their mind at cabinet meetings. All of this did not allow the UMNO rank and file to exercise their right to elect their leaders. Dr Mahathir could get away with it for no reason than that he had, as UMNO president, the support of both the cultural and political Malay. That was until 1998, when he unwisely humiliated his deputy president, one which haunts him and UMNO to this day.

The Malay ground remains split from then. UMNO at first sight recovered the Malay ground in the 2004 general elections, but so flawed is its victory that the Malays paradoxically are more firmly divided now than ever in a political context where Islam would henceforth play a larger role. The alienation of the Malay electorate, at all levels, bespoke a deliberate removal of the secular and cultural Malay from the political scene. Since UMNO has locked horns with PAS over an Islamic Malaysia, it should be ready to address the fall out. But it loses ground in both. UMNO itself is unsure how to address this, because its leaders have to look over their shoulders ever so often. In the post-election UMNO, Pak Lah must keep the warlords in check as he becomes president in his own right. He is on a tight rope. He cannot act decisively as he should. His cabinet is a joke. He acts in panic. All to ward off the warlords from making his life intolerable.

As if this is not enough, every BN party has similar problems. They followed the UMNO practice of unchallenged leaders, who then took it as proof of their control over the ground. They worked in a vacuum, surrounded by sycophants and cronies, trampled those perceived a threat. The party was moulded in the leader's image, the community is shortchanged, and since they did not have an independent power source, stayed on in power as lackeys of the UMNO president. All the while, like in the Malay community, their communities were goaded into action by their younger and marginalised members. The more this pressure came, the more the leaders aligned with the UMNO president. So much so that they do not have an independent political existence. They needed to be in power for decades. The result, as in UMNO, was wobbly leaders who insisted on power by divine right. The accumulated mess created in past years now threaten it with a vengeance.

Since the BN is also in power, it rode rough shod over the institutions. It ignored parliament and the state assemblies, and ruled by fiat. It brooked no opposition, in parliament and in the state assemblies, and with untrammelled powers, isolated or sacked those who disagreed. In other words, the BN became an exclusive party of hangers on, there for no purpose than hang on to office. Nothing else mattered. But this also brought within it a parallel leadership of a nay force of those sidelined or ignored, and which could not be easily destroyed. A crisis was all it needed for it to surface. This election, by its huge BN victory, paradoxically, empowered it as well. So when the BN should smile at its huge victory, it must now confront this internal convulsion: those now sidelined and dropped would now automatically join this nay force.

Which is why the BN leaders divert attention to promise that MPs and state assemblymen would be kept in check through report cards and other means. This suggests the question of why now? Did they not in past elections? Why is it so important after this election? But it is a fig leaf to cover the violent convulsions within. In UMNO, for instance, the two top leaders, Pak Lah and Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak, want to protect their position by insisting that the two top positions must go to them, that any who disagrees is a traitor. What is not mentioned is that Pak Lah, having failed to send his deputy packing, now must work with him. Dato' Seri Najib, not to be outdone, bides his time while professing eternal support for Pak Lah. All of this is to forestall any challenge when elections are held. How could there be contest when the two top positions are vacant, and that Pak Lah and Dato' Seri Najib are but acting president and acting deputy president.

All eyes are focussed on the UMNO elections. Pak Lah has made his first mistake in his cabinet. He expanded the Mahathir cabinet he inherited, made it unwieldy and unworkable. He had no choice, given the political forces ranged against him. He must prune it after he is firmly annointed. The warlords have factored that into their calculations. And pile on the pressure. There is another disturbing disquiet: Pak Lah would rather give way than stand up to pressure. We saw how he sacrificed his friends when their party leaders insisted they be out. We saw how the anti-corruption campaign is all but forgotten, the one minister who expanded on it in the doghouse. While he sorts his problems out, what would the BN party leaders do? For they face as severe problems for which there is no solution, and when push comes to shove, the UMNO barricades that once protected them from its own members would just not be there. Pak Lah must rise above all this if he wants more than a fleeting presence as Malaysia's prime minister.

[This is my column in Seruan Keadilan, the organ of the National Justice Party (KeADILan), out today, 12 April 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai

Terbitan : 14 April 2004

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