Hence Najib’s career all depends on how well he performs in the coming general election. Unless he can do better than what Abdullah Badawi did in March 2008 then he would have to go. Winning the general election is not good enough. He would have to ensure that Pakatan Rakyat does not win more than 80 Parliament seats and Selangor falls back to Barisan Nasional plus Barisan Nasional retains Perak.

THE CORRIDORS OF POWER

Raja Petra Kamarudin

UMNO President and PM Abdullah announced on July 10 he will step down as Prime Minister in June 2010 and hand over power to his deputy Najib Tun Razak. He also will relinquish his positions as president of United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) and as chairman of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to Najib. The PM added that he would not lead BN into the next general election, which has to be held by May 2013, as at that time the country would have Najib as its new Prime Minister. At a press conference after chairing the UMNO Supreme Council and a briefing to around 1,000 UMNO grassroots leaders, Abdullah added that he would defend his UMNO President’s post, with Najib as his running mate, at the national party elections scheduled in December.

Abdullah stated at the press conference that during the two-year transition process, he would consolidate and restore the people’s confidence in UMNO and BN. The PM also stated that he chose the time frame to ensure he will be able to implement to the programs outlined in the Ninth Malaysian Plan (2006-2010), particularly hardcore poverty eradication and the judicial reforms he had earlier announced. The Prime Minister noted that he would give Najib more tasks and duties to prepare him for the leadership take-over and to face the next general election.

Abdullah told reporters that UMNO grassroots leaders at the July 10 closed-door briefing had welcomed his transition proposal. One Johor UMNO delegate who spoke with us said those attending the briefing applauded the Prime Minister’s announcement as they had no choice, in the meeting at least, particularly given Najib’s acceptance of the deal. The UMNO delegate clarified that the UMNO Supreme Council had not precluded a contest for the top two slots (a decision the Supreme Council has taken in certain past elections). It remained to be seen whether branches and divisions would fully support the transition deal, or endorse other nominations.

Standing beside Abdullah at the press conference, Najib expressed his gratitude and reiterated his loyalty to Abdullah. The DPM described the transition as in accordance with UMNO’s tradition, and hoped that UMNO grassroots would accept and support the plan. One UMNO divisional leader told us that Najib knew that many grassroots leaders were not happy with the deal, but Najib had explained he had never challenged the party president before and was not about to change that record.

PM Abdullah supporters in the UMNO Supreme Council echoed Najib’s view that the transition announcement was in keeping with UMNO party tradition. Party Information Chief Muhammad Taib stated that the plan was the best way to strengthen UMNO, particularly as history has shown that a contest for top posts will only divide the party. Youth Chief and Najib’s cousin Hishammuddin and Deputy Youth Chief and Abdullah’s ambitious son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin both stated that the transition plan will help unite the party and enable BN to concentrate on fulfilling its election promises. UMNO Women’s Chief Rafidah said, with support for the transition plan, party leaders could focus on tackling the challenges arising out of current global economic problems.

Not all UMNO leaders rushed to endorse Abdullah’s hand-over plan. Veteran UMNO leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been campaigning for the party presidency, described the transition plan as a “wrong move” and “unconstitutional”. Razaleigh claimed he was confident of getting sufficient nominations to contest the presidency, as he would now attract the support of those who previously backed Najib to oust Abdullah. Three-term UMNO Vice President and Minister of International Trade and Industry, Muhyiddin Yassin, who aspires to the deputy president slot, voiced disappoint with the transition plan describing it to reporters as “too long”.

Previously, Muhyiddin publicly urged Abdullah to step down sooner rather than later. Muhyiddin stated categorically that the decision on the transition should be left to UMNO members during the branch and division meetings, hinting that the deal may not be acceptable to the UMNO grassroots. Stirring the pot, Former Prime Minister Mahathir, now a strong critic of Abdullah, took exception to the transition plan and predicted that in the end Abdullah would not allow Najib to become Prime Minister. Writing in his blog, Dr. Mahathir said Najib would be purposefully weakened by damaging allegations, so much so that Najib would no longer appear suitable for office.

Some party activists took exception to the autocratic nature of Abdullah’s pronouncement. John Pang, an advisor to Tengku Razaleigh, described Abdullah’s plan as arrogant and undemocratic. He told us that the “feudal culture in UMNO in directing the grassroots” is destroying the party. In support of Razaleigh’s statement (and political ambitions), Pang claimed that Najib’s supporters were “rabidly” unhappy with the transition deal.

Abdullah’s announcement was clearly timed to influence the UMNO grassroots immediately prior to party branch meetings, scheduled for 17 through August 24, which start the nomination process for the top UMNO posts. Following the party’s unprecedented set-back in the March general elections, Abdullah has come under pressure to resign in favour of Najib or not seek party re-election in December. By confirming a hand-over date and Najib as his successor, Abdullah hopes to cement his re-election bid and head off any grassroots mobilisation in favour of challengers, including Najib, Muhyiddin, and Razaleigh.

Currently, Najib is in no position to reject Abdullah’s proposal, given Najib’s vulnerability to unconfirmed but widely believed allegations of his connection to the Altantuya murder case. The UMNO grassroots will have the opportunity in the next few weeks to signal whether they acquiesce to Abdullah’s plan. The reaction of senior UMNO figures who lose in this deal, like Tengku Razaleigh and UMNO vice president Muhyiddin, also will be important to gauge.

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That (above) was the confidential report that the United States Embassy in Kuala Lumpur sent to Washington on 11th July 2008. This report was regarding Umno’s closed-door meeting to resolve the succession issue.

Basically, the then Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was not prepared to resign immediately. He wanted a ‘transition period’ where he would ‘eventually’ had over power to his Deputy, Najib Tun Razak.

The Umno grass-roots leaders plus the top leadership did not agree to this. And amongst those ‘top leadership’ of Umno who also did not agree to this was ex-Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who did not see the need for the delay. He wanted Abdullah Badawi out straight away.

Dr Mahathir wanted Najib to challenge Abdullah Badawi for the Umno Presidency, and hence that would mean for the Prime Ministership of Malaysia as well. Najib, however, refused to do that and even publicly stated that he supports Abdullah Badawi and is loyal to him.

This upset Dr Mahathir. But then Najib has never had to challenge anyone in the past. Even his post of Umno Youth Leader was handed to him on a silver platter — by no other than Anwar Ibrahim. So Najib is not the fighter that Dr Mahathir had hoped he would be.

Dr Mahathir made it very clear that if Najib did not want to challenge Abdullah Badawi for the leadership, then he (Dr Mahathir) will back another ‘horse’. And this ‘dark horse’, so to speak, would be Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. And to push the point home, Dr Mahathir started ‘flirting’ with Tengku Razaleigh.

This spooked Najib who saw his chances of taking over fading. But there was one issue that was the stumbling block for Tengku Razaleigh. And that stumbling block was: Tengku Razaleigh refused to be Dr Mahathir’s proxy with the latter being the de facto Prime Minister who will ‘guide’ the former.

Tengku Razaleigh was adamant that if he became Prime Minister then he would be ‘independent’ and will not be under the control of Dr Mahathir. That, in fact, was supposed to have been the arrangement between Dr Mahathir and Abdullah Badawi. However, as soon as he became Prime Minister, Abdullah Badawi all but ignored Dr Mahahir’s wishes.

And that was Abdullah Badawi’s downfall — his refusal to honour the deal he had made with Dr Mahathir.

Abdullah Badawi was smart, though. He agreed to all the ‘terms and conditions’ and then after taking office he did a U-turn. Tengku Razaleigh was not so smart. He rejected the terms and conditions so Dr Mahathir had no choice but to dump Tengku Razaleigh and revert to Najib — who agreed to comply with whatever terms and conditions to become Prime Minister.

Technically, Najib is Prime Minister at the pleasure of Dr Mahathir. If it is displeases Dr Mahathir then he can no longer become Prime Minister. And it would certainly displease Dr Mahathir if Najib cannot do better than Abdullah Badawi did in the March 2008 general election.

Hence Najib’s career all depends on how well he performs in the coming general election. Unless he can do better than what Abdullah Badawi did in March 2008 then he would have to go. Winning the general election is not good enough. He would have to ensure that Pakatan Rakyat does not win more than 80 Parliament seats and Selangor falls back to Barisan Nasional plus Barisan Nasional retains Perak.

Furthermore, even if Pakatan Rakyat gets to retain Penang, Kedah and Kelantan, it has to be with a reduced majority.

So this is not just about whether Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat gets to win the coming general election. Barisan Nasional is not concerned about losing the general election because they are confident of winning it. It is about how impressive a win. And whether Najib remains the Prime Minister would all depend on his election performance.

But not everyone is happy with Najib. Many within Umno would like to see him fall. The question is: would they play certain ‘tricks’ to make sure that Barisan Nasional wins with a lesser majority than in March 2008?

Umno is worried that it may see elements of internal sabotage in the coming general election. After all, this is what they did in 2008 to force Abdullah Badawi out of office. So they have done this before. And Umno is worried that they may do it again so that Najib can be forced out off office just like Abdullah Badawi was.

Sometimes, in politics, we need to make alliances with the other side. And many alliances across the political divide are going to be made in this coming general election. Enemies are going to become temporary friends based on a common goal. All through history this has been the case where enemies ally themselves to defeat another but common enemy.

Of course, once this common enemy has been defeated that does not mean the alliance will continue. But that is a matter to be resolved once you need to cross that bridge. For the meantime, the battle lines are not too clear. Expect enemies to ally and friends to sabotage each other.

No doubt, if Umno thought it was going to lose the election then they would close ranks to deny Pakatan Rakyat the government. But if they thought they were going to win and there was no threat of a Pakatan Rakyat take over, then Umno with turn on itself and the warlords in Umno will try to kill each other off.

Hence it does not serve Pakatan Rakyat’s interest to demonstrate too much confidence. That would just strengthen Umno’s unity. Only if Umno thought that Pakatan Rakyat posed no danger to it would we see a house divided and a house divided is a house that will fall.

This, however, appears to be something that I can’t get across to Pakatan Rakyat. The response I get from the Pakatan Rakyat supporters over the last two years is the opposite of what they should be saying. And that, I suppose, can only work in Umno’s favour.

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