DEC 6 — Here we go again.
That must be the sentiment being felt by Prime-Minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his band of supporters in recent days after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad ratcheted up pressure on him to become his “own man” and support certain aspirants to senior positions in Umno.
The Deputy Prime Minister knows that the caustic comments and biting statements will not stop until the party elections are over in March or until he gives his full backing to candidates endorsed by Dr Mahathir.
On the flip side, he also has to accept that showing favour to one set of candidates or becoming a proxy for the former prime minister could provoke other candidates to go for broke and destroy any sense of stability in a ruling party already knee deep in controversy and facing an important by-election on Jan 17.
Running through Dr Mahathir’s recent statements and postings on his blog, he appears peeved that Najib has become too comfortable with the transition plan and not assertive enough in supporting Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as his choice for the number two position in Umno.
Muhyiddin, who played a significant role in building up momentum for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s ouster, has been Dr Mahathir’s only choice for the number two position.
He is up against Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Mohd Ali Rustam and Rural Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib for the deputy president’s position.
Dr Mahathir is also partial to his son Datuk Muhkriz Mahathir being elected Umno Youth chief over Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo.
In a posting on his blog, he accused Abdullah of busy campaigning for his chosen candidates for the posts of deputy president, Wanita chief and Youth chief, noting that winners will be rewarded with appointments as ministers.
“Najib is going to be surrounded by Abdullah's people and through these people Abdullah will control the government of Najib. Najib has already abandoned Muhyiddin, the fierce critic of Abdullah. He does not want to incur the displeasure of his boss. Would he refuse to appoint Abdullah's nominees? Would he dare go against them?” he provoked.
Several days ago, he suggested that Najib may end up as the president of Umno but Abdullah will hold the ultimate prize — the prime ministership.
In an interview with Riz Khan on Al Jazeera, he followed up with another observation, noting that Najib is “more a follower than a leader and must change that.”
These statements are designed to spook Najib and his supporters and provoke them into action, namely showing clear support for candidates with antipathy towards Abdullah.
These statements must also be read together with the warning by Dr Mahathir to expose election candidates who he believes are guilty of buying support.
In his opinion, Muhyiddin should be a shoo-in for the number two job.
Instead, he appears to be in a dog fight with Ali and Muhammad Taib, two candidates said to be close to Abdullah.
Sources told The Malaysian Insider that Najib may prefer Muhyiddin over the other two candidates but will not publicly endorse anyone contesting the party elections.
The reason: he believes that it could complicate efforts to restore unity to the party after March.
Also, it is too early in the game to be showing his hand.
The party polls are a good four months away and no candidate in any category is an overwhelming favourite.
Finally, if Najib endorses any candidate or a slate of candidates, he runs the risk of exposing himself to fire from those left out of the equation.
Given the poisonous mood in the party, the return fire could be damaging.
So for the time being at least, staying on the sidelines makes sense for Najib.
Only problem is that Dr Mahathir is not going to be silent.