Thursday, August 28, 2008

Renewed opportunism in Umno

AUG 27 — It's is hardly surprising that Umno leadership pretenders, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, have renewed calls for Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's resignation as premier after Barisan Nasional's comprehensive defeat in the Permatang Pauh by-election.

The pressure for Abdullah to step down started right after BN's disastrous performance in the general election but quietened soon after the prime minister and his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced a transition plan which would see the latter taking over both the administration and party sometime in the middle of 2010.

Although not unanimously accepted by Umno rank and file, it was enough to buy Abdullah some time to build his legacy and give Najib a chance to resuscitate a tattered public image courtesy of his top advisor's involvement in the gruesome Altantuya murder.

The transition plan scuppered plans by Abdullah's detractors in the party to oust him during Umno's general assembly in December. Most notably, Abdullah chief critic from within his own cabinet, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, was forced to back down from contesting one of the two top posts in Umno to defending his third-tier vice presidency.

Many felt Muhyiddin was forced to retreat because with Abdullah and Najib circling the wagon with the transition plan, there was little support among party leaders and warlords for him to move up the party hierarchy.

Similarly, Tengku Razaleigh's campaign to once again become the president of Umno was losing its momentum. Privately his advisers admitted to fighting a losing battle and the transition plan was as good as a nail in his political coffin.

For Mukhriz, his political career's high point of replicating his father's act of dissent by writing a letter demanding the prime minister's resignation lost any traction it may have generated with the 2010 plan and his own hopes of becoming the next party youth leader were also diminishing with a strong surge of popularity of former Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohd Khir Toyo among grassroots youth members.

So for these Abdullah critics, the result of the Permatang Pauh by-election is another opportunity for them to generate momentum against the prime minister.

They claim that Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's victory is confirmation of the rakyat's rejection and repudiation of Abdullah's leadership. The result is a signal that nothing has been done to salvage the situation since the general election and BN needs a new leader before it becomes too late.

Such calls are at best opportunistic. First of all, this was not an election that was winnable for BN. It took place in Anwar's "back yard" and is a seat that has been in the Anwar family for the last seven terms.

From the get go, many in Umno had already conceded defeat and this was reflected in the reality that at times during the campaign it appeared as though Najib was the only Umno leader working the ground.

While admittedly the prime minister's public approval ratings have been sliding, they are still as strong as Anwar's and Najib's. The by-election was fought under very difficult localised circumstances for BN and to use the results to hasten Abdullah's departure would be opportunistic as well as missing the point of the defeat.

Secondly, the by-election was, if anything, framed as a referendum between Anwar and Najib. Again, although this is unfair because it was held in Anwar's stronghold, many sized up both "prime ministers-in-waiting" during the campaign.

Anwar was as relentless in his attacks on Najib and vice versa. The deputy prime minister believed at one point his own credibility was at stake and swore in a mosque that he never met Altantuya or had anything to do in her murder.

If anything, Najib is as damaged as Abdullah after this by-election campaign which means whenever a leadership does transition takes place, it will do little to save the fate of Umno and BN.

To be fair, Tengku Razaleigh understood this and launched his latest salvo against the top two leaders. Mukhriz, on the other hand, was more disingenuous refusing to criticise Najib for tactical reasons relating to his own future career and limiting his attacks to his father's arch enemy, Abdullah.

Thirdly, Umno and BN must understand that this is not the time to mess about with pressure on the leadership. With Anwar's threat of Sept 16 looming, Umno and BN need to hunker down, close ranks and train their guns outwards.

They are already going to be in for a rough ride with Anwar as the parliamentary opposition leader, they cannot afford to waste their time and energy attacking their own leadership especially after a transition plan between Abdullah and Najib was put in place very recently.

Lastly, the calls for the prime minister to step down again demonstrates Umno's ignorance of the real causes for their plunging popularity. It is not Abdullah per se that the rakyat are rejecting but the system that Umno is seen to propagate.

The refusal to reform, the denial of corruption and the inability to appear magnanimous to non-Malay interests continue to characterise Umno. This is what the rakyat is against and they punished Abdullah for it in the general election because he let them down by not moving firmly enough with his reform agenda.

Umno needs to understand that the by-election result was largely due to Anwar and his personal connection with the voters of Permatang Pauh. While there may be many national factors, these alone do not explain Anwar's resounding win.

He is "family" to the people of Permatang Pauh - a favourite son that they believe will be prime minister. To take the result and turn it against Abdullah smacks of sheer opportunism and denial of the root causes for Umno’s and BN's continued decline into obscurity.

- The Malaysian Insider

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