Sunday, November 02, 2008

JOCELINE TAN: Who will be the perfect No.2?

By Joceline Tan

Some believe that when Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak becomes Prime Minister, he should have a Ghafar Baba-like deputy who will not be a threat to him. Others say the next No.2 must be ready from day one to tackle the looming political and economic challenges.

DATUK Shafie Mohd Abdullah’s Hari Raya open house has always had an oomph to it, thanks to the presence of his boss Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

Shafie is Najib’s political secretary, and their relationship goes back to the days when Najib was Umno Youth leader.

This year’s open house had what Umno supreme council member Datuk Norza Zakaria described as an “Obama-sized gathering” — that is a big turnout.

Present were all three aspirants for the Umno deputy president’s post, namely Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam and Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib. Perhaps they were there hoping to get the nomination from the Wangsa Maju Umno division which has yet to meet and where Shafie is a big gun.

Although Shafie is political secretary to Najib in his capacity as Finance Minister I, “people are starting to look at him as the political secretary to the incoming Umno president,” said Norza, who was the former Wangsa Maju Youth head.

“In politics, we like to say that today is his day, yesterday was my day. But then tomorrow may be my day again.”

The political wind is changing, alliances are shifting and fortunes have turned — some for the better, others for the worse.

And that is politics, as they say.

A lot of it has to do with the leadership transition. Najib is well on his way to becoming the next Umno president, having swept the party nominations for the post.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the other aspirant for the post, only won his first nomination yesterday from his own Gua Musang division.

It looks like Najib will be endorsed by 190 out of the 191 divisions by the time the party division meetings conclude on Nov 9.

Three brides and a groom: Three candidates are vying to be the No. 2 to Najib (far left) who has swept the nominations for Umno president. He is seen here with two of the candidates Mohd Ali (third from left) and Muhammad (far right) at the Hari Raya open house of Datuk Shafie (second from left), where Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim was also present.

A first for Umno

Umno will soon be in an unprecedented situation where the party has chosen the next president while the incumbent chief remains the Prime Minister until March.

This will be a first for the party and it will be interesting to see how things work out.

“It will be quite awkward but the transition has been agreed upon and accepted,” said Norza. “That’s why Datuk Seri Najib is getting almost 100% support. We see him assisting in reforming the party while Pak Lah concentrates on reform in the Government.”

Najib’s supporters are confident that he has the experience and polish to negotiate his way through the next five months without stepping on too many toes. They say that Najib will ensure that the transition is smooth and dignified.

Many Umno politicians have also taken a leaf from the discussion surrounding the US presidential campaign.

They talk about how the incoming Umno president/ Prime Minister has to be ready to take over from day one, that there will be no time for on-the-job training or even acclimatisation on account of the global financial crisis.

“Datuk Seri Najib recognises the urgency to be ready by March,” said a long-time aide of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Likewise, whoever is picked as his deputy has to start working the day he steps into office.

As such, it is puzzling that some people in the party are advocating that Najib should have a Ghafar Baba-type of deputy.

These people are claiming that with a Ghafar Baba prototype, Najib would have peace of mind to take charge of Umno and the Government. The Ghafar Baba prototype would not try to challenge him or, worse, plot and scheme to take over from him.

They point out that the period during which Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had Tun Ghafar Baba as his deputy coincided with some of the most stable years in Umno politics.

The same group asserts that the most traumatic periods were when Dr Mahathir had ambitious and impatient deputies, namely Tun Musa Hitam in the 1980s and, of course, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

There is no denying that the Malacca-born Ghafar lived and died as one of the most sincere and likeable politicians this country has had.

But with all due respect to the memory of the late Ghafar, times have changed. The halcyon days when life and politics were simpler are long gone.

Malaysians expect and deserve a leadership that can measure up to contemporary standards and challenges as well as make them proud at home and abroad.

Najib, when he becomes Prime Minister, does not need a seat-warmer as his No.2 in order to feel secure and in control of Umno. The massive endorsement now pouring in for him is more than enough assurance and proof of party support.

What he needs is a capable and loyal deputy who can pull his own weight.

And in the event of something happening to the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister has to be ready and able to take over.

A seat-warmer would be disastrous in such a situation. The No.2 job is far too important for a seat-warmer type of candidate.

Given the political challenges ahead for Umno and the global economic uncertainties, it is quite dumbfounding that such simplistic and inane arguments are being circulated by interested parties in Umno.

Muhyiddin: He is leading in the nominations for deputy president and is back in Dr Mahathir’s good books.

The most astonishing thing is that such views are being pushed by seemingly educated people.

Said one Johor politician: “If these people really cared about the party and the country, they would not be talking such nonsense.”

But everything lies in the hands of the Umno grassroots. The power of the grassroots to decide is no cliche this time around.

“People are talking about the wave and the wind. It’s no joke, I saw it happening in my own division,” said Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar who is contesting the vice-presidency.

He had proposed fellow Johorean Muhyiddin for the deputy president’s post at his Kota Tinggi division meeting but the floor decided they wanted Muhammad. His division, which is dominated by Felda and Felcra schemes, favoured Muhammad who is Rural and Regional Development Minister.

Candidates need to get a minimum of 39 nominations to qualify to contest, a task that looks easier on paper than in reality.

Two-way fight

At this point in time, it looks like the fight will be between Muhyiddin and Mohd Ali, who is Malacca Chief Minister.

Muhyiddin has continued to lead the nomination count for the Umno No.2 job. The International Trade and Industry Minister pulled ahead early in the race based on the perception that he is Najib’s preferred running mate and also that he has Dr Mahathir’s blessings.

Mohd Ali is still doing well, thanks to what is widely seen as endorsement from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. He made more progress this week and has only a week more to make the cut.

Muhammad, once the most powerful man in Selangor, is struggling to survive. The former Selangor Mentri Besar has been like a cat with nine lives, making one comeback after another. But this may be his Alamo.

Other factors like ability and track record aside, Muhyiddin’s immediate advantage over his two rivals is that he is a sitting MP.

Mohd Ali is an assemblyman whereas Muhammad is an appointed senator. It will be problematic for them to be made Deputy Prime Minister, given their non-parliamentary status.

And as Minister in the PM’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz pointed out, it will be even more complicated if they have to face a by-election in order to become an MP and Deputy Prime Minister.

The contest to be the No.2 is more complicated than it looks.

Who will be the perfect No.2? The star.