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The long goodbye

UMNO has moved its annual general assembly and party elections from December 2008 to March 2009 purportedly to bring forward the transition of power from its president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak.

But this surprise decision by the party supreme council on 26 Sept is just a prologue; the real story will be Abdullah’s announcement as to whether he will defend the president’s post in March.

The prime minister has said that he will announce his decision before 9 Oct, when Umno’s 191 divisions start their meetings for a month.

With undeniable pressure mounting on Abdullah to quit before than the original deadline of June 2010, many journalists were left wondering after his 26 Sept press conference why the prime minister didn’t just state his intentions there and then. What does he hope to achieve in the two weeks before the division meetings start?

His highly anticipated announcement, expected after the Hari Raya holidays, will signal whether he accepts defeat now or will fight to the end.

Abdullah’s coyness is puzzling. At the press conference, when asked if he would defend his post, he said: “It will be my decision to contest or not, you can go on guessing but the decision will be mine.”

Alwi: It is Abdullah’s prerogative when to announce his decision
Abdullah’s political secretary Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad was equally cryptic. “He has decided but he just didn’t want to announce it. It his prerogative when to announce it,” Alwi said later.

Unlikely to contest

The general view is that Abdullah is unlikely to contest. By not stating this at the emergency council meeting on 26 Sept, he is hoping to create the impression that he is stepping down on his own terms, and not under duress. He has been consistent in saying that he would leave when he decides to and when his work on certain national reforms is done.

The other view is that Abdullah’s boys will be on the ground for the next two weeks until the division meetings start to gauge the number of nominations he can secure for president. Nominations from 58 of the 191 divisions, or 30%, are needed for a run for the presidency.

But this scenario is vehemently denied by Alwi, who says that Abdullah has already sent “a clear political signal” that indicates he will not contest.

Independent political analyst Khoo Kay Peng also believes that Abdullah will likely announce that he won’t defend his post.

“Why would he postpone the party polls if he doesn’t want to contest? [That's because] He doesn’t want to give the impression that he is being forced down. He wants to exit gracefully and on his own terms. It looks as if he gets to call the shots, but at the end of the day the script is already written,” Khoo says.

Khoo Kay Peng: Abdullah will likely
announce he won’t defend his post
An aide to Najib also agrees: “It’s Abdullah’s prerogative as president to have a graceful exit on his terms. It’s clear that he’s unlikely to run.”

Sincere about handover

Abdullah’s camp stresses that the premier is thoroughly sincere about handing over the reins to Najib, although it’s just a matter of when. That was what the swapping of the finance ministry and defence ministry portfolios on 17 Sept was all about.

“There may have been some distrust among Najib’s people about whether Abdullah will really stick to the initial June 2010 transition deadline, so giving Najib the powerful finance portfolio was a way to show Abdullah’s sincerity about handing over,” an official said.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia Director of the Institute of Ethnic Relations Prof Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin believes that Abdullah’s inner circle and his die-hard supporters have accepted the loss of support from the ground.

They have also realised that unless Abdullah steps down sooner, this loss of support could spell the end not only for Najib, but for those close to the premier.

The delay in the party annual general assembly and polls buys time not only for Abdullah but for those aligned to him to plan for their exits and for life after Seri Perdana.

“Both Najib and those closest to Pak Lah will completely lose their places in the top echelon of the country. Pak Lah is not going to contest the number one post, and that is why he has decided to postpone the Umno general assembly to March, in order to arrange everything and with the least damage done to those close to him,” Shamsul told The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview.

There were murmurs over the weekend that Abdullah would contest but with the exception of Jerlun Member of Parliament (MP) Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, none would come out and state it so clearly.

“There are several scenarios. One is that Pak Lah might defend the presidency, and Najib will go for the deputy presidency, with Pak Lah handing over to him in March 2009. That is a possibility we should not discount. If one doesn’t want to contest, why should one delay for two weeks in order to state it?” Mukhriz told reporters at a buka puasa function he hosted on 28 Sept.

Mukhriz, who is running for party youth chief, added that if Abdullah ran and won, it would create infighting for the deputy president’s post after he hands over the presidency to Najib.

Tengku Razaleigh hopes to get enough nominations for the
Umno presidency
Tengku Razaleigh for president?

Nothing changes, however, for Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who still hopes to get enough nominations for the presidency regardless of whether Abdullah is in the running or not.

At a press conference on 27 Sept, the senior politician denounced the postponement of the general assembly and party polls, and slammed the transition plan once again.

When asked what he thought of Abdullah’s ambiguous stand on contesting, he says: “I myself am confused as to what he’s doing.

“Maybe he wants to listen further to his advisers. He’s said before that he wants to contest,” the Kelantan prince added when asked if he thought Abdullah might still run for president.

Analyst Khoo believes Abdullah will only undermine himself if he decides to contest. His supporters, who have plans to run in the party polls, will also face an uphill battle. His son-in-law, Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin, who is a Youth chief hopeful, said the same day after the supreme council’s decision that the postponement of the elections to March will “complicate” the campaigns of those standing.

Abdullah and Najib at the Umno headquarters on 26 Sept, with secretary-general Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan
Tengku Mansor (in orange) and Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein (far right)

The ultimate sacrifice

The cost of Abdullah deciding to run is too high; the party could split even further and Najib would have a tough time trying to calm his angry supporters who feel he has waited too long for the president’s post.

When Abdullah spoke to reporters after the council meeting, he was asked if he would make “the ultimate sacrifice” by stepping down.

“As far as I’m concerned, I love my party, even under the most difficult circumstances I’ve never left. I did not join Semangat 46, I did not join any other party. I’ve never been on the platform of an opposition party to speak against Umno,” he said.

This is undoubtedly Abdullah’s most trying time in the five years since assuming the Umno presidency. And now, with the clock running, he is busy scripting his farewell. His prologue involves delaying the party election, and the rest of the plot will unfold before 9 Oct. Until we get to the final act, how this script will end is anyone’s guess.

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2 Responses to “The long goodbye”

  1. Goostee says:

    Don’t be surprised if Pak Lah springs a surprise that will knock out Najib for the count. Having been cornered, he has little choice but to redeem himself. Now, with the Defence Ministry under his control, he should take the opportunity to dig down to the roots of the Mongolian saga. If before, the military intelligence had no choice but to preserve its allegiance to the DPM, it is now free to reveal the truth about the matter. In doing so, it may redeem Pak Lah’s reputation as Mr Clean.

  2. kchan says:

    Pak lah had time and again tried to delay his exit with the hope that the ‘Melayu mudah lupa’ would allow him to stay on in power. That’s his original plan – to quit in 2010.

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