KUALA LUMPUR– Delegates to the recently-concluded triennial elections of Malaysia’s top political party have voted according to their conscience, sending a strong signal to party president, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, that they prefer their leaders who can reach out to the grassroots of the politically-dominant Malay community, even as they continue to support his agenda for a strong, elitist-based government.

Mahathir has taken note of their wishes, which are reflected in the election of all three vice presidents and 10 of the 25 members of the supreme council, the highest policymaking body of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the backbone of the ruling National Front (NF) coalition government.

But how the Malaysian premier would respond in his next move will only be clear in the few months ahead as developments unfold. The desire to elect more proactive and articulate leaders voicing the sentiment of the grassroots in UMNO, though muted, was already in the air when about 2,000 delegates converged at the party headquarters in Kuala Lumpur on May 10-13 for the annual general assembly of the party.

The assembly assumed greater significance this year as it involved the postponed triennial elections to the party’s top positions — the party president, deputy president, three vice presidents and 25 members to the supreme council.

In the last general election, the NF managed to win 75 percent of the 193 seats in the national Parliament. But this overwhelming victory rang hollow for many UMNO members, when a closer examination of the results revealed that the party had lost a lot of ground to the theocratic Islamic Party (PAS) especially in areas where Malays form at least 80 percent of the electorate. The gains made by the PAS have been generally attributed to their better grasp of the of the problems of the Malay grassroots.

Still licking wound

Though UMNO won a recent hotly-contested by-election in Sanggang against PAS with an increased majority, the general feeling among party members was that the overall situation in terms of UMNO’s strength had not significantly changed since the last general election: UMNO was still licking its wound after the horrible mauling by PAS last November.

Explained delegate Annuar Musa in an interview on last week in Kuala Lumpur: “The party machinery was weak. The leaders were too proud with success in government. We tend to neglect the party.”

The delegates agreed that something must be done in UMNO to ensure that the NF would not lose power to the AF led by PAS come the next general election in 2004.

The election of the three vice presidents and 10 supreme council members reflected their choice: they wanted leaders closer to the grassroots who are able to sift the wood from the trees in addressing crucial party issues, not those who just sit in their ivory towers and take a simplistic approach toward complex problems.

“This is democracy at work in UMNO. You can see that they don’t listen 100 percent to what the president says. They want their opinion to be heard,” said Azmi Khalid in another interview.

Despite allegations of vote-buying, analysts contend that the delegates voted according to their conscience after taking into account the runup to the polls, particularly in the last two months following the outgoing supreme council’s decision of no contests for the two top positions, presidency and deputy presidency, and no campaigning as a whole.

Campaigning was not allowed as it would lead to money politics and other kinds of malpractices, it was argued.

Contrary to what had been reported in the local media, the Anwar issue was far from dead and buried. The fact that Mahathir brought it up every now and then during the general assembly, made many delegates still sympathetic to Anwar to vote for those still linked to him in some way.

The delegates attributed the good track record of three winners in the supreme council vote — Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak, former Chief Ministers Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Muhyiddin Yassin — to Anwar, because Anwar had chosen them over many others in 1993, and they had indicated that they could still work as a team even after Anwar had been dismissed.

The delegates for change in UMNO have spoken loudly and clearly, but Mahathir may not fully acquiesce to their demands for drastic changes in UMNO, as 15 of his staunchest supporters were also elected to the 25-member supreme council.

But being the astute politician he is, Mahathir will somehow have to see how best he can accommodate their wishes without sacrificing his agenda for a strong UMNO-led coalition government.

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