Sunday, March 16, 2008

The road never travelled


The Prime Minister will have a lot of hard decisions to make in the aftermath of the earthquake that shook up the political landscape.

IT has been more than a week since the elections but Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's voice was still hoarse, as though he was still on the ceramah circuit.

The election campaign has ended but the senior Umno vice-president has not had the chance to take a break. His mobile phone is still jammed with text messages and calls and Umno members have been asking to meet him, all wanting answers for the stunning outcome of the general election.

He has been doing a lot of talking and explaining, hence the condition of his voice.

“There is a lot of anger, confusion and frustration among Umno members. The results were catastrophic, none of us expected it and they are asking what happened, what to do now. They are concerned about the future, the state of the party and the leadership,” he said.

The feeling on the ground is reminiscent of the aftermath of the 1999 elections when Malays turned against Umno and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

But the consequences then were not as dramatic as now where the Barisan Nasional lost in five states, and that is not counting the massive losses in the Federal Territory seats. Negri Sembilan was won by a simple majority and Johor can no longer boast of being a bastion state.

For a coalition so used to being in power, the situation is akin to a world turned topsy-turvy.

Just weeks before the elections, Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo was bragging about zero Opposition in Selangor. Instead, he is now the state Opposition leader and shouldering the bulk of the blame for the fall of this premier state.

Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan looked grim as the results rolled in on polling night. He told people he had gastric pains but it is possible he was thinking about how close the state came to swinging the other way.

In Perlis, Datuk Dr Md Isa Sabu was named the new Mentri Besar even though Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim claimed to have a letter from Putrajaya naming him as the Mentri Besar.

His Terengganu counterpart Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh has been kept waiting for an audience with the Sultan amid speculation that he may also be replaced.

Wanita Umno chief Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz has written a long letter to the Prime Minister expressing her views of what went wrong and naming those to blame.

The new Jerlun MP Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir has written an even more controversial letter asking Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to step down.

Mukhriz is probably trying to seize the moment, as they say, but there is something disconcerting about his action. The man picks you as a candidate, you win, and four days later, you send the man a letter asking him to resign. Mukhriz will be a brave hero to some, a political opportunist to others.

Even The Star had its own casualty. The Star’s photographer in Kelantan, Sazuki Embong, suffered a stroke a few days after polling day and Mentri Besar Datuk Nik Aziz Nik Mat was the first among a string of politicians to visit him in hospital.

The knives are out for those whom party rank and file think are to blame for the losses and they are long and sharp ones.

“I'm going to be very frank about all this in the months ahead because we are looking at a changed political landscape. We are on a road we have not travelled before,” said Muhyiddin.

Parties like MCA and Gerakan are quite familiar with the tactical whims of the Chinese electorate.

But Umno is less used to rejection and its supporters are having trouble adjusting to not being completely in charge. The Malay media has been full of disquiet over the fate of Malays and Malay privileges.

Umno took a stab at internal reform after the 1999 elections but it fizzled out when the party regained its footing in the 2004 polls.

Now, the party is again about to enter into soul-searching, to analyse what went wrong and the changes that it will have to undertake to stay relevant.

Abdullah is more than aware of the pressure on him to take responsibility as evident from his article in the Asian Wall Street Journal which was reproduced in The Star. He noted that although some quarters have asked him to step aside his party had given him support to carry on his nation-building agenda.

Said Datuk Shahrir Samad who was re-elected Johor Baru MP: “The PM is aware of his responsibility over the performance of the party but the focus now is to set up the government and to get it up and running. Our people in the states where we lost should start behaving like an effective Opposition. Then we can look at our own internal problems and the leadership issue in the party.”

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has also been under pressure. The No 2 position in Umno has rarely been easy and the seat has not been this hot.

The day after the elections, Najib had to make it very clear that he was not receiving any Umno delegations. Apparently, there was talk that delegations were making a beeline for his Taman Duta home as a result of a large number of cars parked outside.

He had guests but they were mostly family, close friends and aides. Basically, he was tired after the campaigning and resting at home.

One of Abdullah’s priorities now is to form the Cabinet.

This is a most critical moment and the Prime Minister will need a strong Cabinet comprising people who can work, of good reputations and who can carry out his national agenda.

“We have an image problem and we have not been able to get rid of the perception of nepotism, corruption and cronyism. The perception is so strong that we find it hard to answer when people criticise us. It would be foolhardy not to make drastic changes. For example, it would be suicidal to bring back Samy Vellu,” said Shahrir.

Abdullah is looking at a radically smaller Cabinet, maybe two-thirds of the previous 32-man team. Some are talking about a 20-member Cabinet, with possibly only 15 deputies and five parliamentary secretaries.

“He has to kill with one stone the people's perception of ministers and that stone is a credible Cabinet line-up,” said an Umno official.

Abdullah's previous Cabinet was also filled with too many faces dating back to the Mahathir era. Not all of them were past their shelf life but some were rather too controversial and did not reflect the Prime Minister's reform agenda.

There will be more content from the Sabah and Sarawak side not only because they delivered but because Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is said to be fishing for crossovers in east Malaysia.

Muhyiddin said those who lost should not be appointed if the prime minister wished to present a credible Cabinet.

“The Cabinet should include winners in every sense of the word,” he said.

Abdullah is also concerned that the Barisan backbench include able people who can debate and take on the Opposition bench. The Government bench will be facing a bigger and more formidable Opposition in Parliament, whose numbers have sprung from 20 to 82.

From PAS there will be the likes of Datuk Seri Hadi Awang (Marang), Taib Azamudden Md Taib (Baling) and Mahfuz Omar (Pokok Sena).

DAP’s new faces include Oxford graduate Tony Pua (PJ Utara), political strategist Liew Chin Tong (Bukit Bendera) and Teo Nie Ching who fired up the campaign trail with her oratory. PKR stars include Azmin Ali (Gombak) and Nurul Izzah Anwar (Lembah Pantai).

The Barisan will have to get used to the fact that it is now the Opposition in several states and that it will face the strongest Opposition bench in decades.

“With the losses in all those states, the federal government has to be more political in responding to the rakyat and their problems. By this, I do not mean benefiting political supporters but to be more responsive to how people feel about issues.

“The Barisan communications strategy also has to change. It is too presidential in terms of focusing on the PM and his family, like giving Khairy (Jamaluddin) so much publicity,” said Shahrir.

Or as Muhyiddin put it: “One day we thought we were on the road to victory, the next day we woke up and we had almost lost it all. Blame it on the media spin or the reluctance to convey bad news, but people don’t seem to know what to believe anymore.”

Abdullah will have a lot of hard decisions to make in the months ahead – about his government, the ruling coalition, his party and also about himself.

The pressure has been building from the moment the election results were known and he will need all the patience, resolve and wisdom he has at his disposal to handle the situation.

~ the star online