Thursday, October 23, 2008

Back to Dec polls for Umno?

Clash looms as party chiefs table issue for discussion at next week's meeting

By Reme Ahmad, Assistant Foreign Editor

Mr Abdullah handing over his finance minister's post to deputy Mr Najib on Monday. Mr Najib's comments regarding next week's meeting clash with the PM's wish to stay in power until March. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

A CONFRONTATION is looming in Umno over the issue of Malaysia's leadership transition.

In a sign that there has been no let-up in backroom efforts to push out Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi earlier than March, his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, has said Umno chiefs will meet next Thursday to discuss bringing back the party's internal elections to December.

'I hope they can put aside politics and put people first. Many people are struggling with high costs, and now there is the global economic crisis.'

Mr Mohammad Agus Yusoff, a political science lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, expressing the exasperation some feel about the country's political developments

March to the polls
  • March 8: Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi leads governing coalition to poor outing at general election.
  • July 10: He announces his June 2010 retirement date.
  • Aug 26: Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim wins by-election by a big margin.
  • Oct 8: Datuk Seri Anwar's win deals blow to Mr Abdullah, who says he will quit in March; party elections are pushed back from December.
  • Oct 15: Umno vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin says delay in polls puts strain on money and energy.
  • Oct 18: Mr Abdullah says he will stay until March to carry out reforms.
  • Oct 21: Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak says party chiefs will meet next week to discuss December polls date.

  • 'We will answer all these questions on the 30th. For now, there is no change to the date (of the Umno elections),' he said on Tuesday.

    He was asked by reporters whether the internal polls, which two weeks ago were delayed from December to March, would be brought back to the earlier date.

    The decision-making Umno Supreme Council will meet next Thursday for its regular monthly meeting, and Mr Najib was the first to say the issue of the December polls would be discussed.

    His comments clashed with Datuk Seri Abdullah's wish to be in power until March.

    When told last Saturday that Umno vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin wanted the polls to be held in December, a visibly upset Mr Abdullah said: 'What is the meaning of all this? I am not happy with this. Is he trying to stop me from making reforms?'

    Party chiefs, including Mr Najib, had concurred with the Premier that he should be allowed to retire at the end of March.

    But the deal caused unhappiness among the grassroots because it meant the period to campaign for top posts would drag on for three more months, instead of ending by Dec18, the original date of the triennial polls.

    Added to this is anxiety in the Najib camp following a string of accusations against the PM-in-waiting.

    Political analyst Yahaya Ismail said: 'Abdullah was given 'injury time' to March to quit, but there are worries whether Umno will be stable with these accusations against Najib.'

    Two weeks ago, a website accused Mr Najib of sending many text messages to the lawyer of Razak Baginda, his former adviser who is accused of abetting the murder of a Mongolian interpreter.

    Mr Najib was then accused of pushing a RM2.3 billion (S$972 million) deal to buy new helicopters for the Defence Ministry just before he passed the position to Mr Abdullah.

    This was followed by a website's accusations of alleged past scandals. Also being circulated online were doctored pictures of him practising Hindu rites.

    This week, a fake manifesto tried to portray him as an intolerant leader who would defend Malay rights to the 'last drop' of his blood.

    Mr Najib, who has strenously denied the allegations against him in the manifesto, which was published by Malaysiakini, said yesterday he had accepted the apology given by the news website.

    The group of leaders agitating to push Mr Abdullah out earlier know they must carry the Umno ground along. So they are couching the power grab by saying that delaying the polls would drain money and energy.

    A proposal has been put forward that Mr Abdullah may remain as Premier until March, even though party polls are held in December.

    'They say he could hang on. But once you have a new Umno president in December, Abdullah will not have the moral authority to stay around,' said a Supreme Council member.

    Tan Sri Muhyiddin is among those publicly in favour of a December poll date, leading Mr Abdullah to accuse him of being 'impatient to become the deputy prime minister'.

    Mr Muhyiddin is the front runner to be Umno's new deputy president, and thus deputy PM. Supporting the Trade and Industry Minister is de facto Islamic Affairs Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a front runner in the vice-president contest.

    Backing them is former premier Mahathir Mohamad, a bitter critic of Mr Abdullah.

    Tun Dr Mahathir said soon after the March deal was announced that it was better for Mr Abdullah to step down immediately as he must give Mr Najib full authority to rehabilitate Umno.

    But there is no guarantee that come next Thursday, the 40 Supreme Council chiefs will agree to bring the date for party polls forward because supporters say Mr Abdullah will not budge.

    Still, the flip-flops are a strain for some observers.

    'I hope they can put aside politics and put people first. Many people are struggling with high costs, and now there is the global economic crisis,' said political science lecturer Mohammad Agus Yusoff of the National University of Malaysia.

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