Entering the final lap

Diterbitkan: Ahad, 15 Mac 2009 12:00 AM

(Ubah saiz teks)

Umnopolitics is about to take centrestage. The spotlight is on the contest for the deputy presidency amid expectations that on March 24, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will send out signals on who he prefers as his No 2.

THE Muslim Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Seremban had not seen a crowd as boisterous as the one on Tuesday night.

It was an Umno group and they applauded loudly when the host, Seremban Umno chief Datuk Ishak Ismail, said: “I am not a minister, or MP, or even an assemblyman. I’m just like you, holding a division post, but Umno’s strength depends on people like us, not the ministers. We are the real VIPs in the party.”

The hot fights: Attention will be on who becomes the next deputy president and who will triumph in Umno Youth and Wanita Umno. Clockwise from bottom left: Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Khairy Jamaluddin, Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo, Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, Datuk Seri Ali Rustam and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. They laughed even louder when Tan Sri Isa Samad, the former Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar, who was also there, said: “When people become ministers they sometimes forget the grassroots, but not Ishak because he has never been a minister. But never mind, he graduated from England.”

The 60 or so people at the dinner were Umno delegates from Negri Sembilan who had turned up for an Umno function only to find it had been cancelled, so Ishak suggested they go to the restaurant that boasted a Muslim Chinese chef from China.

Ishak was not exaggerating when he described them as “VIPs”. Folk like them not only make the party hum and tick but they will also be among the 2,500 delegates who will vote in the next Umno leadership at the end of the month.

The Umno election campaign has entered its final lap. The candidates are out every night and Umno circles can talk about little else but politics.

The marathon, as some have called it, is about to come to an end.

Every big post, with the exception of the presidency, is being contested, something that has not happened in ages.

But the spotlight will be on three fights – the deputy presidency, the Wanita Umno and the Youth leadership.

The likeability factor

It is a three-way fight for the deputy presidency but the campaign has essentially narrowed down to Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. The third man, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, is trailing behind.

The contest has been likened to one of likeability versus ability or, as some in Umno put it, Pak Lah’s candidate versus Najib’s candidate. Mohd Ali is said to enjoy the blessing of outgoing Premier Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi whereas Muhyiddin is seen as the preferred candidate of incoming Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.

It has been a close race for the pair but Mohd Ali has, by most accounts, taken the lead in the last few days. He has been more diligent on the hustings and he has the network and the resources. And, of course, he has the likeability factor that adds mileage in Umno politics.

Muhyiddin will have to make a big push in the final week if he wants to clinch the post.

This is the contest that even those outside Umno are watching with interest because whoever becomes the deputy president of Umno also becomes the deputy prime minister.

In that sense, every Malaysian has a stake in the contest for the No 2 seat in Umno.

Everyone is expecting a signal from the incoming president on his preference for No 2. They feel it is his privilege as the next president to state the criteria he expects of a deputy and particularly given the challenging times that Umno is going through.

He is expected to do this on the evening of March 24 when he officiates at the joint opening of the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings.

It will be his swan song to the three wings and he would want to make full use of the occasion to shape Umno’s future.

As such, even though he will be speaking essentially to the three wings, he will be addressing the entire party.

“But don’t expect anything too direct from him. Datuk Seri Najib understands Malay subtlety and the signal he sends will not be direct. But I think everyone will get the message,” said an Umno official.

The fight for the leadership of Wanita Umno moved into the spotlight purely because of the dynamics of the two contenders who were once partners but are now bitter foes.

Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz and Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil are barely on speaking terms and it is going to be finito for whoever loses because the feelings between them have grown so personal the winner is unlikely to concede anything to the loser. It will be a winner-takes-all kind of ending to the Wanita fight.

On Tuesday, after a session to introduce those contesting posts in the wing to the women delegates from the Federal Territory, the two women, wearing fixed smiles, exited from the same door and went their own separate ways.

Of all the contests taking place, this one least represents change whichever way it turns out. Rafidah, 65, has held the post for 24 years while Shahrizat, 56, has waited too long.

But Shahrizat has run a very focused campaign that has seen her harnessing all her experience in women’s issues and will present a plan for the wing if she wins. On top of that, Datuk Kamilia Ibrahim who won the No 2 post unopposed has declared support for her.

The Umno Youth contest, like that for Wanita Umno, will take place on March 25, a day before the one for the main party.

Tense race

There has been so much interest in the battle for the Youth leadership that when a TV station featured the three men in a live debate, it was the talk of the party for several days.

One reason is that all three men are larger than life personalities in their own way – the son of the former Prime Minister, the son-in-law of the present Prime Minister, and a former Mentri Besar.

The antagonism among them has grown as personal as that for the Wanita Umno fight.

Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir have had a prickly relationship since the day Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad began attacking Abdullah.

They cannot stand the sight of each other but have to see each other almost every day now that the party’s meet-the-delegates sessions are in full swing.

Every night, they have to endure the “clapping politics” that has become a feature of these sessions. Each time a candidate’s name is called out, supporters clap and cheer and onlookers cannot help but compare who gets the loudest cheers and applause.

In Negri Sembilan recently, many noticed Mukhriz had a more enthusiastic reception than the other contenders when his name was called out. But Mukhriz, who had seemed unstoppable at the nominations stage, is struggling to catch up.

Datuk Seri Dr Khir Toyo, on his part, entered the contest feeling like a stepchild with no famous family name to ride on.

But he has defied the odds and Umno straw polls have him in the lead. This, despite the Pakatan Rakyat government in Selangor exposing scandal after scandal that have allegedly taken place in Dr Khir’s administration.

A survey by the Merdeka Centre had some revealing insight into who Malaysian voters preferred as leaders in Umno. There is evidently a big gap between this and Umno delegates’ preferences for Umno.

The party should give some thought to it because it is the voters who will decide whether the party will remain in power or fall.

The finishing line is in sight for those contesting posts although nothing is for sure until they breast the tape. But Umno politics and personalities will take centrestage over the next two weeks.

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