YACOOB ABBA OMAR: ANC risks emulating Malaysian governing in losing absolute majority

Indlulamithi 2030 Scenarios Project forecasts party will be forced to form a coalition government in 2024

The parallel between politics in Malaysia and SA is uncanny, and as we watch the political manoeuvres in Kuala Lumpur one cannot help but wonder if this is an indication of SA’s fate.

After six decades in power, the governing United Malays National Organisation (Umno) party was removed by the electorate in 2018. In August came the resignation of Malaysia’s shortest-serving prime minister and his replacement by its 13th, Umno’s Ismail Sabri Yaakob — the first to have been born after independence from the British in 1957.

The Indlulamithi 2030 Scenarios Project has sketched a similar scenario for the ANC for 2024, speculating that it will lose its absolute majority and will be forced to form a coalition government at national level.

Umno was at the core of the Barisan National (BN) coalition, credited for having negotiated merdeka or independence, while keeping large parts of the feudal system intact. Over the decades it has seen numerous splits. Some of the early ones were around the extent to which its policy and organisational structures would be exclusively Malay-focused, which its “Young Turks” favoured.

ANC staff picket outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: THULANI MBELE
ANC staff picket outside Luthuli House in Johannesburg. Picture: THULANI MBELE

This would have been the equivalent of SA’s PAC elements, with their narrow definition of Africanism. Instead of splitting off the ANC it actually dominated it from the 1950s, preventing the emergence of the progressive, nonracial position that became the trademark of the party.

In Malaysia those who wanted a multi-ethnic Umno left the party, while one of the Young Turks, Mohamed Mahathir, assumed leadership of the party and then the country, serving as its prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

Many formations

A fratricidal succession battle in 1987 caused the party to be divided into two camps, Team A and Team B. Two decades later the ANC’s Polokwane conference of 2007 caused a similarly intense battle to be fought out.

Just as the ANC has spawned the PAC, UDM, Cope and EFF, so too has Umno been the progenitor of many political formations. After Mahathir fired his deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998 on the basis of trumped-up charges for which he was eventually jailed, Ibrahim led a multi-ethnic, grassroots Reformasi movement. With the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and Chinese-dominant and secular Democratic Action Party (DAP), he formed a united front opposition.

With heightened civil society protests against the increasingly corrupt Umno government and Mahathir’s relentless attack on his successors, the governing party barely won 51% of the vote in 2008. Mahathir came out of retirement in 2016 to head the Pakatan Harapan (PH), a broad centre-right and centre-left alliance, which won the 2018 elections.

These elections represented a pivotal moment in Malaysian politics when, for the first time, Umno lost its majority position. Crystal ball gazers could well ask: is this what lies ahead for the ANC in the 2024 elections?

Politics fulcrum

With the reconciled Ibrahim and Mahathir at the helm of the PH, the victory was interpreted as the time of the “New Malaysia”. Remember the “New Dawn”?

What are the scenarios for Umno and, by implication, for the ANC? At one level they can be either the “kings” or the “kingmakers”, as Murray Hunter, an analyst of Southeast Asian affairs, has written of Umno. This means both formations recognise that having served their nations well as broad national movements, and having helped consolidate a postcolonial situation into a vibrant democracy, they remain the fulcrum around which the body politics revolves.

One of the crucial differences is the independence of SA’s judiciary and media, which have been key bulwarks in eroding the effects of corruption. The ANC’s renewed pledge under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership to support both institutions, despite some leaders’ efforts to dilute that commitment, is the surest way of ensuring we don’t go down the road of sleaze and patronage that characterises Malaysia.

The ANC needs to pursue its self-proclaimed promise of unity and renewal with an even greater dedication to clean government at all levels. Otherwise, 2024 for the ANC could be what 2018 was for Umno.

By : Yacoob Abba Omar (Director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute) – BUSINESS DAY

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