Thursday, November 17, 2011

SPOTLIGHT: A test of Umno's reinvention

The Umno general assembly in three weeks’ time will be closely watched for proof that the party has reformed and prepared itself for the next general election

Umno  members must  close ranks  to ensure victory in the 13th general election.
Umno members must close ranks to ensure victory in the 13th general election.

Umno, the linchpin of the 13-party ruling Barisan Nasional, holds its general assembly in less than three weeks -- likely its last before the 13th general election.What goes on during the convention, which kicks off on Nov 29 and goes on until Dec 3, of this most scrutinised party  will be of great interest to many.One question for which answers will be sought is whether Umno, which boasts a membership of 3.5 million, has taken the pulse of the people and adopted changes to meet the political demands of discerning voters. Another is whether the grand old party has instituted reforms following the setbacks it endured in the 2008 general election. This will restore its founding status as the party that represents the Malays in the country.Umno had renewed its commitment to put the people first when it celebrated its 65th anniversary on May 11 this year, as the party worked to ensure it remains the bedrock of Malay politics and revives the selfless spirit of its establishment in 1946.In doing so, it affirmed the principle of inclusiveness of the other races.The party has been brutally honest with itself, conceding for the first time that it could lose power if it failed to change its ways, and eliminate power struggles and money politics.What the public is keen to see in the general assembly is how far Umno has reinvented itself."How the assemblies of Umno's three wings, Wanita, Youth and Puteri, take shape will indicate what can be expected at the general assembly proper the next day. The wings are the movers, their assemblies are a prelude to the main assembly," said Prof Datuk Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, head of the politics, security and international affairs cluster of the National Council of Professors.Datuk Seri Najib Razak is scheduled to deliver the president's message at a pre-council meeting on Nov 29. The three Umno wings will hold their respective assemblies the next day while the assembly proper will take place for three days beginning Dec 1. Transformation has become crucial for Umno, which will rest its fate with the people at the next polls.Umno's top leaders, especially Najib, have reiterated that it cannot be business as usual for the party.Najib is determined to fix the party's image to win over lost support. This will be first time that he is leading the Umno-led BN coalition into the general election.All new leaders, said former Umno secretary-general Tan Sri Sabbaruddin Chik, wanted to score a decisive win in their first electoral outing and Najib was no exception."His predecessors secured big victories when they led   BN into a general election for the first time. It is   natural for Najib to want to win back BN's traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament at the next general election. He will also do this in his own way," said Sabbaruddin.Najib has for some time now been upping the tempo, rousing his troops for what analysts say is a do or die electoral campaign for Umno."It's a battle royale, so delegates have to leave the general assembly with renewed spirit and a high level of confidence in winning the election," Mustafa said.Najib has been pressing the party's rank and file to close ranks, discard factionalism and embrace the collective objective of putting up a strong challenge to their political foes. Party members were reminded that the enemy was outside the party, not within.But   rivalries among divisional leaders have not stopped, even in the constituencies where internal discord had been identified as the cause of Umno's defeat in 2008.Recent incidents during Aidil Adha have raised eyebrows. Grassroots  leaders had  even politicised the religious festival as they competed to outdo each other in the ritual slaughter of cattle for the poor.Umno wants to win many more seats in all states and what it needs most, at this point, is to see its machinery intensify preparations for the polls.The party is now on a mission to identify winnable candidates, even looking elsewhere for suitable personalities. Grassroots leaders are hoping that such criteria  will be spelled out more  clearly at the assembly."Yes, some will be waiting to get a clearer picture of what winnable candidates mean at the assembly," said Umno information chief Datuk Ahmad Maslan.Najib has been telling the Umno grassroots to leave the selection of candidates to the party leadership and not squabble when those from the divisional hierarchy fail to make it into the final list. But he has not specified the qualities that he is looking for, only  saying that prospective candidates must be popular and acceptable to the people.Umno, as the largest party in the country, cannot afford to be seen as self-absorbed in its internal conflicts but rather should work more visibly towards achieving a bigger victory for itself and  BN.Former Umno president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also warned Umno members against disunity and disarray, urging them to return to the party's original struggle and cast aside self-interest to win the general election

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