Sunday, March 23, 2008

Shaken and stirred

The aftershocks of the political tsunami are still being felt and now the main concern of Umno politicians is the speculation of Barisan Nasional MPs crossing to the other side.

UMNO Youth politicians arriving for their meeting on Tuesday were surprised to see a big crowd on the ground floor of the Umno headquarters.

Their meetings rarely attract much attention but the agenda that afternoon involved a letter Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir had written to Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi about the results of the elections, asking him to assume responsibility and step down.

As things turned out, Mukhriz got off with what amounted to a tap on the wrist at the end of the three-hour meeting.

There was mixed reaction from those around the table when the matter was opened up for discussion.

Some said he was wrong. They said that although he spoke in his capacity as the newly-elected Jerlun MP, he was “still wearing the uniform of Umno Youth” and should not have broken rank.

Others agreed that what he said “reflected the voices on the ground” but that the forum he used was inappropriate.

They told him that the strength of the party also lies in defending the leadership and while it was his right to express his views of the president, he should not have resorted to a letter that became public property after it was published in, a pro-Mahathir website.

Mukhriz admitted that he had written the letter, and he stood by its contents, but he had not leaked it to the public.

Those present then agreed that what he had written was his personal view but since he was not responsible for its circulation on the Internet, no action would be taken against him.

It was, as the wing’s executive secretary Datuk Rahman Dahlan said, “a sign of the times”.

The wing’s leadership knew that punishing Mukhriz would be counterproductive and Umno Youth would be seen as trying to bury its head in the sand

“The rules have changed. When we tell people you can’t criticise the PM like that, they tell you in the face, ‘Who said so?’ But we really love this party so we decided to take what Mukhriz told us at face value. We decided to treat it as a headline, here today and gone tomorrow,” he said.

But the issue has not gone away. Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has urged Umno division heads to hold EGMs in their respective divisions to discuss the party’s electoral setbacks.

The politician prince has been holding court on the issue. On Wednesday, he spoke at such length during a press conference at his Kota Baru house that the video clip of what he said had to be posted on the Internet in three parts.

His own Gua Musang division is holding its EGM next month but no other division has followed suit as yet.

There is no doubt that what Tengku Razaleigh and Mukhriz are saying is resonating among people inside and outside Umno.

But their problem is that although Razaleigh knows what he is talking about, he is largely seen as a fringe voice in Umno.

He said he was willing to offer himself for the Umno presidency. But although still rosy-cheeked and glowing with health, he is, at 74, too old to take over.

Mukhriz, on his part, is regarded as rather too junior. He came into Umno Youth on a strong record of NGO work but some are still not sure whether what he is saying stems from his own conviction or that he is merely echoing his father’s sentiments.

As one of his Umno Youth colleagues said: “He has been active only in the last four years and most of that time he has spent defending his father. We are still not sure what he stands for.”

But basically, the true-blue Umno rank and file are quite convinced that any dramatic change in leadership at this juncture will further destabilise the party.

Said an Umno official: “We do not deny that Pak Lah is under pressure from all sides. But for the PM to step down at this point will only result in disarray and chaos in Umno as well as the Barisan. It’s the last thing we need right now.”

Abdullah, said the official, is a gentleman politician and he has no intention of clinging to power.

“Our priority now is to regain our bearings, rebuild our strength. The people sent out a very strong message to us. They have reached a threshold of tolerance about us and we are taking note of all this. We want to carry out a proper and thorough post-mortem on the election results and our performance. That will provide some basis to our future course of action for the party and the leadership.

“Pak Lah wants to restore Umno. Then, should there be a plan to reconsolidate the party in whatever way, he is prepared for the consequences,” said the official.

The one good thing that Abdullah has going for him to date is that the Cabinet he unveiled earlier this week can now get cracking. It is generally well accepted, barring some criticism about a number of appointments.

Getting the federal administration up and running will help ease some of the uncertainties surrounding the Government.

Abdullah’s situation is uncannily reminiscent of the one Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad faced in 1999 when Terengganu followed Kelantan into the arms of PAS. The then Premier had also been under great pressure to step down.

It was said that his falling out with his then Finance Minister Tun Daim Zainuddin resulted from the latter telling him that the two of them should resign because people out there wanted them to go.

But resigning was then not in Dr Mahathir’s vocabulary.

As in 1999, some in Umno are talking about postponing the Unmo elections due later this year. But key Umno officials say the polls will likely go on as scheduled.

Postponing it will only make the Umno rank and file even more restless and unhappy. After such a traumatic political experience, the Umno grassroots want to air their views, listen to what the leadership has to say and form some roadmap for the future.

The dust has yet to settle after the political tsunami.

Last Wednesday, one of Abdullah’s most trusted lieutenants Datuk Seri Radzi Sheikh Ahmad resigned as Umno and Barisan secretary-general while ousted Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khir Toyo resigned as Selangor Umno chief.

The circle around Abdullah is feeling the heat, as is normal when things go seriously wrong.

His son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin has been hit the hardest. Khairy was the lightning rod for the opposition parties in their election campaign and he is now being blamed within the party as one of the causes for the Barisan’s poor showing.

He won well in Rembau but he has lost ground in the party. During the Umno Youth meeting on the Mukhriz issue, he sat there listening quietly, declining comment when it came to his turn to speak.

“It has been a terrible lesson for all of us and especially for Umno Youth, It is a sobering thought that the young Malay vote was not with us. It means we have failed and we have to take corrective action,” said Rahman.

But Umno’s greatest concern now revolves around speculation of Barisan MPs crossing to the other side.

Losing in five states and almost all of the Federal Territories is bad enough. They cannot imagine losing control over Parliament.

Political circles have been abuzz with speculation that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim has already approached enough MPs to form a simple majority government and that none of them has yet to cross over because the would-be hoppers want to join a ruling coalition rather than the Opposition.

Besides, Anwar is waiting for his own ticket into Parliament when his ban on active politics ends on April 15. He has no intention of securing a majority in his favour but surrendering the Prime Minister post to, of all persons, PAS president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang.

The spectre of Anwar making a comeback is very real to some people. He speaks the populist language and he is still very much the consummate political animal. He was the cover story in the latest issue of Newsweek and the foreign media have proclaimed him as the big winner and even as the next Prime Minister.

However, said Kelantan politician Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad: “I don’t know why people are making such a big issue of our control over Parliament. Which do you think is more difficult – for us to get eight more MPs so as to have a two-thirds majority in Parliament or for them to get 30 MPs? Please give us more credit than that.”