On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Now the wild scramble begins


By : Wong Chun Wai

THE 191 Umno divisions will begin their nominations for the top party posts from Thursday, which means that party leaders aspiring for senior positions must make known their plans within the next few days.

That means party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi would have to announce whether he wishes to defend his post or begin his retirement plan.

The consensus is that Pak Lah is unlikely to defend his post and will make it known to the Barisan Nasional supreme council, which is expected to meet over the next few days, that the leadership transition plan has begun.

In short, Pak Lah will pass the baton to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, and that over the next six months, he will make plans to exit from the leadership.

With the quick pace of Umno politics, party leaders are already busy making their move to fill up the vacancies although most have not announced their plans, preferring to wait for Pak Lah to state his position first.

Dark horse

The only exception is former youth chief Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 55, who confirmed last week that he would be contesting for the deputy president post.

On Thursday, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department explained that he made the announcement simply because he believed that Najib would take over the leadership.

That means it is a foregone conclusion that embattled Pak Lah would be retiring for sure and that there would be no last-minute changes in plans, although some of his supporters harbour hopes that he will fight on.

It is an unlikely scenario as Pak Lah is too weak to take on a fight and his stepping down is imminent and irreversible.

Umno and Barisan Nasional component party leaders have made it known that they want Najib, 55, to take over the driver’s seat soon to provide him sufficient time to carry out the repair job following the damage of the March 8 election.

The attention has now shifted to the num­ber two spot as party aspirants begin scrambling to fill up the vacancies.

Within the Umno circle, Zahid, a popular figure with the press, has been described as a “dark horse” in the race because he is relatively junior, having served previously as a deputy minister and now barely six months as a full minister.

Considering the seniority of the deputy president post, which by tradition and convention also means the deputy prime minister post, Zahid’s short resume would be used against him by his opponents.

He is said to have been picked to check Inter­national Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the most senior vice-president who is almost certain to vie for the number two slot.

Muhyiddin, 61, has stepped on the toes of powerful figures in Umno with his constant calls for Pak Lah to step down; certainly for Pak Lah’s supporters, it is payback time now ahead of the nominations.

But Muhyiddin has enjoyed an early boost with two divisions, Cheras and Titiwangsa, saying they would be picking Najib and Muhyiddin for the top two posts.

Not to be outdone, Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam has said he would be joining in the fray for the deputy president.

The decisions by Zahid and Rustam are likely to trigger more announcements over the next 48 hours and the possible candidates may include Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein and Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib.

Crucial contest

Umno delegates must bear in mind that their pick of the number two post is crucial. It is not a popularity contest.

Eloquence in Bahasa Malaysia and strong heartland relations will not be sufficient. The country expects our top two to have the ability to grasp economic issues and win the confidence of the financial community.

The deputy must be able to articulate confidently at international forums and, more importantly, he must not have a tarnished reputation.

It would be a mockery if the deputy prime minister is not held in high regard by Malay­sians and the world. Fulfilling one’s ambition is one thing but the ability to represent Malay­sia on a competitive global stage is another.

We can take comfort in the fact that Najib is a British-trained economist, has vast experience and speaks perfect English. We can ill-afford a Sarah Palin situation.

The position of Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 71, remains unclear. He has expressed interest in contesting the presidency for the third time. He needs 58 nominations to make a fresh bid for the post and certainly it would be a Herculean task.

Although he is qualified for the post, he faces a generation gap with the delegates as many do not know him. It is unlikely he will settle for any lesser post, which requires fewer nominations.

Candidates vying for the deputy president and vice-president posts only need 38 and 19 nominations respectively. .

The leadership transition plan begins this week and Malaysians will witness the beginning of a new leadership era.