Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), the country’s newest political party, wants to be the new, better Umno. Detractors criticise its ethnic platform. Supporters say it is necessary to steal Umno voters and oust Najib Abdul Razak.
But is Bersatu even viable to begin with? Splinter parties usually face unique challenges when they compete with their parents for membership, resources and ideological space. Do parties like Bersatu tend to do well?
It isn’t the first splinter party. PAS and PKR were Umno offshoots. Umno’s own founder and first president, Onn Ja’afar, founded not one, but two breakaway parties.
But the party most similar to Bersatu is Semangat 46, formed in the aftermath of Umno’s hotly-contested 1987 leadership race. The party was an anti-Mahathir Mohamad vehicle that pitched itself as a return to the ‘original’ spirit of Umno. Its challenges tell us a lot about Bersatu’s problems today.
What’s in a name?
When Mahathir won Umno’s party elections in 1987 by a razor-thin margin, 11 members disputed the results and went to court. Thanks to a technical argument by Mahathir’s team, Umno was declared illegal.
Both sides rushed to register a new party to succeed Umno. Tengku Razaleigh-aligned leaders tried to register ‘Umno Malaysia’ and ‘Umno 46’ but failed. Mahathir’s ‘Umno Baru’ won in the end.
It is clear why they scrambled. A familiar party name does a lot of heavy lifting for you. For voters, the Umno name has many built-in associations – protecting Malays, good business, independence, government, and so on.
Hearing ‘Semangat 46’ (or ‘Bersatu’), on the other hand, tells voters little – they have to learn a lot of new information on their own. It would be like a new smartphone maker entering the market to compete with Apple and Samsung.
Of course, all new parties and politicians struggle with recognition. They can overcome it – but it is expensive.
Money and resources
The logistics of running a party and winning elections costs money – no avoiding it. Organising ceramahs, printing banners, renting, travelling, buying advertising space, hiring staff – all of this needs money.
To build campaign machinery, parties also need to know who its reliable volunteers and members are. It needs to know who will donate money. It needs people who can touch base with the grassroots. This information is valuable – and takes time to acquire.
The scramble to succeed the old Umno in 1988 was not just a fight over the name. The new Umno would inherit all the old party’s resources – its top-secret ‘political fund’ worth tens of millions, various other assets and business interests held by members for the party, control over media outlets like Utusan Melayu and the New Straits Times, plus whatever other data and information the party owned.
Semangat 46 was at a major disadvantage – on a purely logistical level, it had to start from scratch while Umno Baru could mostly get back to business.
The same goes for Bersatu. It is cashless compared to the Umno business juggernaut. It has no newspapers to act as propaganda arms. It cannot woo big private donors who need government contracts and business. It also has no mysterious Saudi donors (yet).
Elite support and membership
Members are also a key resource. Membership numbers are an indication of the party’s broad support, but members also provide manpower, time and money to run operations.
Umno keeps its members unless they want to leave. Bersatu must convince Umno members to leave and join them instead. The status quo favours Umno. Bersatu has not released concrete membership numbers so far – not an encouraging sign. At least in the Semangat 46 vs Umno Baru struggle, both sides had to actively register members.
Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah’s (Ku Li) party also had another advantage – more elite support. Its backers included former prime ministers Tunku Abdul Rahman and Hussein Onn, ministers Rais Yatim and Radzi Sheikh Ahmad, and other major members like Harun Idris and Othman Saat. Before the 1990 election, they had 12 MPs. Even then, they performed miserably at the electiond – winning only eight of 61 contested Parliamentary seats, and 19 of 152 state seats.
What about Bersatu? Of Umno’s entire top leadership, they only poached Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir. They only have one MP – Muhyiddin.
Support from elite party members is important because they command their own grassroots support, have useful personal networks and bring their own name recognition to campaigns. Bersatu could make up for weak grassroots support with strong elite support, or vice-versa – but so far it has neither.
Finally, there is Bersatu’s campaign strategy. Other splinter parties grew by differentiating themselves. PAS made Islam its main platform. PKR branched out into a broader, multiracial party. They were not just Umno clones.
But Bersatu isn’t doing anything ‘new’ – it will be harder to differentiate itself only by selling itself as ‘Umno but better’ or ‘Umno without Najib’. Semangat 46 was ‘Umno without Mahathir’ – it failed.
In fact, competing directly with Umno can be dangerous – for us. Both parties could engage in a ‘bidding war’ to prove they are better than the other at protecting Malay interest, upholding Malay supremacy, and so on.
We have seen parties abandon moderate positions before to avoid losing. When the multiracial Independence of Malaya Party failed, Onn Ja’afar went to a more Malay-centric platform with Parti Negara. Umno itself got into a bidding war with PAS to prove itself more ‘Islamic’. If Bersatu fails to make gains with its current strategy, will it decide to take a more extreme tack?
Perhaps Mahathir – the man who tried to outbid PAS by declaring Malaysia an Islamic state – will learn from his old opponents’ mistakes and navigate Bersatu through these challenges successfully. History suggests he won’t.
NICHOLAS WONG is a former intern with Malaysiakini’s news desk. He is a law graduate and is currently pursuing a Master’s in International Public Policy in the UK.
Source : @ Malaysiakini