Monday, March 2, 2009

The Najib factor

There has been an unseemly rush among quarters in Umno to be seen as ‘Datuk Seri Najib’s man’ in the coming party polls.

IT was full house in the moderately sized hall in Alor Setar and former Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid felt a little embarrassed.

Mahdzir, who is also the state Umno chief, told the Umno gathering by way of an apology: “This is what it is like to lose power.”

As the state opposition, Umno no longer enjoys unlimited access to state facilities and Mahdzir had to make do with what was available.

The event last weekend was for those contesting positions in the Umno elections to meet the delegates from Kedah, that is, those from the state who will be voting in the new party leadership next month.

Almost all the candidates were there – from the three men contesting the deputy president post to those trying to get into the 25-seat supreme council.

The contest for the supreme council seats has been somewhat overlooked even though those who win will form the highest decision-making body of Umno.

The word on the ground is that members do not want yes-men.

“Everywhere you go, you hear members say they are fed up with people who keep quiet at meetings. They seem to know who speaks up and who agrees with whatever the leaders say,” said Pendang Wanita Umno chief Suraya Yaakob.

They also want people who can deliver.

Or as Deputy Health Minister and supreme council member Datuk Dr Latiff Ahmad put it: “It is only right that they get good after-sales service after they vote you in.”

The Umno grassroots believe that if Umno is to recover lost ground, then its top decision-making body must comprise people who are in touch with the ground, speak their mind and think beyond their own interest.

Given that, there may be an influx of people who do not hold government positions because a supreme council dominated by ministers, deputy ministers and mentris besar would tend to see things from the government viewpoint than take the party’s position.

Moreover, supreme council members who are ministers, deputy ministers and mentris besar may not necessarily be reappointed under the next Prime Minister.

Leaders from states which were lost to the opposition may also find it quite tough to retain their seats in the supreme council.

Given this, said Seremban Umno chief Datuk Ishak Ismail, “we might just see surprises in the line-up”.

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak will want a team he can work with, people who can help him regain Umno’s strength and image.

“People cannot go on doing things in the same old way because the new president has made it clear that he wants a solid team,” said Dr Latiff.

The new president will also pick key government appointments from the new supreme council. And the new batch of mentris besar and state Umno chiefs is also likely to come from the new party line-up.

In that sense, there is also what is known as the “Najib factor” in the party polls this time around.

There has been an unseemly rush among quarters in Umno to be seen as “Datuk Seri Najib’s man”. Even people who were openly opposed to him are now projecting themselves as one of his men.

About a week ago, one state Umno chief who had come up in the last four years because of his ties with the outgoing president tried to impress upon two long-time Najib associates how close he was to Najib. The two were too polite to contradict him but they later went to the men’s room and had a good laugh.

“I’ve seen people who used to be strongmen of Tun Mahathir suddenly become Pak Lah’s men. Now the Pak Lah men want to be Najib’s men. That’s politics for you,” said Ishak with a laugh.

The new president will probably insist that everyone in the party is his man.

Najib will probably say that everyone in Umno is the president’s man.

But Najib values loyalty, especially long-standing loyalty. Some of his staunchest loyalists have stayed the course with him since his days as Umno Youth leader.

As such, everyone in Umno can be the president’s men, but not everyone can be Najib’s men.

Still, the next supreme council will not necessarily be stacked with all of Najib’s men because Umno has its own checks and balances.

The delegates would want a good geographical representation and a mix of old and new. A diligent and generous campaign also helps and there will be those who will do well for precisely this reason.

The candidate list this year is said to have the most number of first-timers.

Of the 51 candidates, more than half are contesting for the first time although a number of them have sat on the supreme council as appointees.

Among the first-timers are Johor rising star Datuk Dr Puad Zarkashi, the new Perlis Mentri Besar Isa Sabu. Putra Umno chief Datuk Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim and Malay movie legend Datuk Jins Shamsudin.

“There is change in the air and people want the chance to serve. There must be people who can do the party work so that the top leaders can run the government,” said supreme council candidate Datuk Azimi Daim from Kedah.

“The urgency this time around is that there are two by-elections immediately after our party election. It’s important that the new line-up is one whom people outside of Umno can respect,” said Tanjung Wanita chief Norjan Hamid.

Sabah is the next stop for candidates to meet the delegates. Sabah has one of the highest number of delegates and there is bound to be a good turn-out.

The four-month campaign has been the longest in Umno history and most candidates feel like they are running a marathon.

But it also has its light moments.

For instance, there has been much talk about the famous RAHMAN formula and how each letter has represented the names of all the prime ministers, with “N” standing for Najib.

But what next after that? Is it the end of the road for Umno?

The more creative and humorous elements in Umno joke that a new formula will begin after Najib and it is none other than the MAHATHIR formula.

“No one’s really serious about it but it’s a lot of fun talking about it,” said Norjan.

“M”, they say, could stand for whoever succeeds in becoming Najib’s No 2, namely, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam or Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib. Or it could even be Najib himself heading the new formula because his full name is Mohd Najib Tun Razak.

As for “A”, they say it could be Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. By then too, Malaysians may be ready for a woman on top, so Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said might get a shot at it.

“H” could be Datuk Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. As for the “A” after “H”, the chap is probably, as they say in sci-fi movies, “somewhere out there”.

It all sounds like a lot of nonsensical fun except that the RAHMAN formula, kooky as it was, has been accurate on every letter.

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