Saturday, November 22, 2008

Mahathir takes up cudgels for his men

Dr M backs son, Muhiyiddin
Money politics under fire as ex-PM backs his son and Muhyiddin

By Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief

When former premier Mahathir Mohamad sinks his teeth into something, he does not let go. This time, it is a campaign against certain candidates in the Umno race, and he could prove to be their most formidable opponent.

It is no secret that he is backing International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin for the deputy president's post which, by convention, also means the deputy premiership. He is also backing his own son Mukhriz for the Youth chief's post.

Through his blog, viewed by almost 10 million readers since May, Tun Dr Mahathir has conducted a relentless campaign against 'money politics' within the party - the Umno codename for vote buying. In an entry on Wednesday, he wrote about how certain candidates had suddenly received an avalanche of nominations after trailing for the first two weeks.

'What caused this phenomenon? People say (I do not have proof, it's just talk) that a lot of money was spent by those left behind initially,' he wrote in Malay. No names were given, but it is assumed he was referring to those running against his preferred candidates.

His views stirred the ground. Dr Mahathir, 83, might no longer be in Umno, having quit in May in protest against Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's leadership, but he still wields influence in the party. And recent history has shown that the former premier has a knack of getting his way, combining a relentless public campaign with astute moves behind the scenes.

His constant sniping helped erode public confidence in Datuk Seri Abdullah, and he will undoubtedly employ the same strategy again. His campaign on behalf of his choice of candidates could be a significant turning factor, and he is expected to step it up as the March election draws nearer.

When the Umno race for nominations began on Oct 9, it opened with a rush of nominations for the favourites: Tan Sri Muhyiddin as deputy president and Datuk Mukhriz as Youth chief. But their opponents soon caught up and qualified to contest.

Mr Muhyiddin will now face Rural Development Minister Muhammad Muhammad Taib and Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam. Datuk Mukhriz is up against the PM's son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin and former Selangor chief minister Khir Toyo.

The flood of nominations received by Mr Muhyiddin and Mr Mukhriz is no guarantee of success at the Umno polls, as history has shown.

Mr Muhyiddin, while regarded by many Malaysians as the most qualified candidate, is seen as aloof and lacks the wide grassroots network that his rivals have. He received fewer votes than either of his opponents when they faced off in the vice-presidential race in 2000 and 2004. Thus, despite the perception that they lack the intellectual heft for the post, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali and Tan Sri Muhammad will give him a tough fight.

Hence, Dr Mahathir's campaign has found some support. A Perak Umno divisional chief, Datuk Zambry Abdul Kadir, told The Straits Times he agreed with Dr Mahathir's view that money politics had become a more serious problem this time.

'Candidates who are not supposed to be there are pushing their way in there, struggling to get the nominations. It's quite sickening to see,' he said.

He stressed that Mr Muhyiddin was clearly the most qualified candidate, but he acknowledged that it is all up to the 2,500 Umno delegates who will vote in March. And the perception is that some of them could fall prey to bribes.

In the meantime, Dr Mahathir can be expected to keep up his unflinching campaign. Two days ago, he issued an ominous warning - that he would name in his blog Umno members implicated in money politics. He was quoted as saying in The Star that he would risk a libel suit to expose the identities of those he had received complaints about.

'I can't do anything about the complaints except to hand these over to the Umno disciplinary committee. I will put these names up in my blog.'

Mahathir takes up cudgels for his men
Straits Times, Singapore