Monday, September 22, 2008

The scent of battle is in the air


Umno grassroots leaders shoulder a huge responsibility in October because they have to decide whether there is going to be a big fight for the party leadership.

THERE was a rare emotion in Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s voice when he explained why he had felt compelled to ask the Prime Minister to rethink the 2010 leadership transition plan.

Leadership and change have always been a sensitive issue in Umno and a subordinate does not ask the boss to go without courting repercussions.

The Umno vice-president knew he was sticking his neck out on this issue. In fact, his neck might even be on the chopping board by now.

But he was confident he was articulating what was in the hearts of many in Umno and that they would not condemn him for it.

Besides, the cards are on the table. Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak caused ripples in the party on Friday when he said he would respect whatever decision that Umno members made on the transition plan.

He was basically saying that if delegates at the party division meetings next month want him to go for the No 1 post, then he would consider it.

The 191 divisions will hold their AGMs for a month from Oct 9 during which they will nominate candidates for key party posts from the president and deputy president downwards.

A minimum of 58 nominations is needed to contest the president post and 39 nominations for deputy president

The transition plan agreed upon in July would have seen Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi passing the baton to Najib in 2010.

Abdullah is not without his supporters and their knives are pointed at Muhyiddin for daring to ask Abdullah to go.

There are demands for him to resign from the Cabinet if he has no confidence in the boss.

It is quite natural for them to be upset but they have to remember that Umno is not a private company but a democratic political party where members elect the leaders and where decisions should technically be from the ground up.

Muhyiddin’s prestige would be greatly affected if he is dropped from the Cabinet but it would also elevate him to martyr status.

Najib may also find himself in the same light for seemingly backtracking on his agreement.

But as some of his supporters have pointed out, the transition plan was endorsed by the Umno supreme council and an­­nounced to divisional grassroots leaders.

It is now up to the divisions to give their views on whether they wish to uphold the plan.

But members from Najib’s circle claim their man is not only fighting for his own survival but that of the party.

They said a turning point for the Umno leader came at the Permatang Pauh by-election.

Said one of them: “We knew it was going to be tough but it was shocking to find we did not have the full support of our own members. Surely that is not only because of Anwar Ibrahim but also issues to do with our own party?”

Permatang Pauh underscored the fact that Umno has serious issues with the Malays and even its own members.

It was time for introspection and, as they say, the elephant in the room could no longer be ignored.

But Umno leaders should be honest with themselves and admit that the transition plan did not go down well with many of their members. Party members were very angry that the party had lost so much in the general election but they also wanted a graceful exit for the Prime Minister.

However, they felt that 2010 was too long and their fear was that Najib would not have enough time to rejuvenate the party in time for the next general election.

Former Premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who had tried and failed to push Najib towards the top post, has been pointedly quiet.

Every political era has its Gang of Four and recently, Dr Mahathir, president hopeful Tengku Razaleigh Ham- zah and two former Umno secretary-generals Tan Sri Sanusi Junid and Tan Sri Sabaruddin Chik got together to try and get Muhyiddin on board as Tengku Razaleigh’s running mate.

This particular foursome has been closely watching the latest development which Sanusi described as “very refreshing.”

“Let’s see if Najib accepts the nominations. If he doesn’t, he will be Prime Minister after 2010 and after the next general election he will be the opposition leader,” said Sanusi with his usual irreverent candour.

It will be an awkward time for Abdullah, Najib and Muhyiddin from now till October.

The scent of battle is in the air even if it is not exactly declared as yet.