Saturday, May 24, 2008

Najib Will Wait

Man-in-demand Najib plays it cool
Part 2 of The Malaysian Insider's peek into Umno's inner sanctum of power following Dr Mahathir's resignation

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Najib. — Bernama pic
KUALA LUMPUR, May 23 — It seems that everyone wants a piece of him. Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi needs his support to stay on as president of Umno. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad needs his support to force Abdullah out of office before the party elections in December. Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin needs a signal from him before deciding on his running mate for the party elections.

Yes, Datuk Seri Najib Razak appears to be holding the whip hand. And for now his position is clear. He will be the loyal number two in party and will not move to push out Abdullah’s, preferring instead to wait for the orderly transfer of power under the succession plan.

His supporters told The Malaysian Insider that he does see any benefit of forcing his way to the top, noting that any power grab could send Umno into further turmoil and make it easier for Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the Pakatan Rakyat to mine the instability and prompt crossovers from Barisan Nasional.

Under the succession plan, Abdullah will hand over power to Najib in 2010. There is a possibility that the timetable could be moved forward if the situation on the ground becomes untenable and there is an exodus of party members to the Opposition.

But Najib is not going to press Abdullah for a faster hand over date. He may have done so if Dr Mahathir’s quit gambit had forced droves of Malaysians to surrender their party membership. Najib also knows that the problems the ruling party faces will not disappear with a leadership change.

A survey conducted by the government recently shows that most Malaysians blame Umno’s arrogance and not Abdullah leadership for Barisan Nasional’s poor performance in Election 2008.

But will Najib be tempted by the constant prodding from Dr Mahathir, a politician he has great affection for?

In recent days he has told some party members that Dr Mahathir’s only interest appears to be in ousting Abdullah and supporting who will be amenable to setting up a council of advisers. Presumably, Dr Mahathir will be part of this council and will effectively run the party and country from behind the scenes.

Such a council is not acceptable to Najib or Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, the former finance minister who has offered himself as a candidate for the party president’s position. Still, Dr Mahathir is going to hammer away at Najib’s conscience and get him to disengage from Abdullah. Yesterday, he took the deputy prime minister for a trip down memory lane.

"If we look back at history, Tun Razak did not agree with Dato Onn Jaafar to open up Umno to other races. To Tun Razak, his disagreement did not mean he was being disloyal to Umno.

"The same goes when in 1969, the Alliance did not perform well in the elections and many criticised Tunku Abdul Rahman. Razak was clearly sympathetic towards his critics, including me'," he told reporters at a press conference in Tokyo, where he is attending the Nikkei Conference.

Dr Mahathir said he had one question to ask Najib.

"I want to ask him whether he is loyal to the party or president? I just want to remind him of the Onn and Tunku cases where his father was clearly disloyal to the party leader. If Najib wants to say those who are not loyal to the president is also against the party, I want to remind Najib of what his father did back then," he said.

Najib’s supporters argued that while many Umno members criticised Tunku Abdul Rahman and blamed him for the May 13 incident, there was no rush to force him out of office like what Dr Mahathir is doing to Abdullah now. Tun Razak did not lead a campaign of hate against Tunku Abdul Rahman.

They also said that apart from Dr Mahathir, no one displayed acrimony towards the father of Malaysia’s independence. Also, arguably, the situation today is not as grave as the one in 1969 where there were race riots, killings and a breakdown of law and order in urban areas.

From discussions he has had with party members and friends, there is little doubt that Najib is troubled about Dr Mahathir’s decision to quit Umno. But it is also clear that his affection for the man will not affect any decision he makes about his political future.

He is still content to wait for his turn to become party president and prime minister. Only a major upheaval in Umno will cause him to change his tactics and allegiance. But it is not a risk-free strategy.

Anwar has said that considers Najib an easy target.

"I hope they pick him as their next leader so I can fight him rather than the others you mentioned. There are all those controversial defence contracts and all the issues dating back to the time when he was Menteri Besar of Pahang," he said in an interview with Asia Inc.

For Najib, it makes tactical sense taking on Anwar with the full backing of the party rather than with a divided Umno in tow.

No comments: