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Friday, March 27, 2009

All the president’s men

MARCH 27 — malaysianinsider — Carolyn Hong

When Deputy Premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak appealed to Umno delegates to vote him a good team, he had an unspoken list in mind. By the time the two-day party elections closed, it appeared that he did get most of what he wanted.

Indeed, he seems to have a fairly formidable team. A strong slate of the president's men will mean that Najib can count on the support of loyalists, and unite a fractious Umno that has been locked in leadership tussles for a year.

Just as important, the newly elected team is likely to be acceptable to many Malaysians. They are mostly in line with the choices named by Malaysians in a survey by the independent Merdeka Centre.

Najib, who became Umno president yesterday, never did disclose his preferences, but subtle signals were enough to prompt educated guesses.

The delegates picked up the right signals.

They voted in International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as Umno deputy president.

All the three vice-presidents who won are also seen as Najib's men. They are Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi; Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein; and National Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Shafie Apdal.

These wins have given much-needed breathing space to Najib as he sets out to unite Umno and push the party to undertake the reforms he has promised. He will have less of a task to deal with the factionalism that so often arises after a bitterly fought contest in the party.

It makes up for the disappointments of Wednesday when it was perceived that the winners of the top post of the Youth and Wanita wings may not have been Najib's choices.

A supporter of the Deputy Premier told The Straits Times that “the Youths did not heed the DPM's call” although it was never clear what Najib himself thought of new Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.

Some also said the new chief of the Wanita wing, Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil, was not his choice but this is not entirely clear.

Clearly, the poll results yesterday show that Najib has a firm control of the party, thanks to his long political career that began at the age of 23. He climbed up the ranks over 30 years, creating a vast network of loyalists that permeates to the grassroots.

The Deputy Prime Minister is now likely to start consolidating his strength in Umno. And analysts expect him to do so by sticking to the time-honoured tradition of appointing the poll winners to his Cabinet.

Since most are acceptable to Malaysians, there is less risk of a public outcry.

The winners may not be wholly reformist — very few in Umno are truly so — but neither are too many of them severely tainted by corruption or hardline champions of the Malay agenda.

Tourism Minister Datuk Azalina Othman Said, who is under investigation for graft, lost her seat in the supreme council.

“Iron Lady” Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, tainted with corruption allegations, also suffered a shock defeat as the Wanita chief.

Despite all the bad press, many see Khairy — the 33-year-old son-in-law of outgoing Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi — as falling in both the reformist and tainted categories. In victory or defeat, he stirs mixed feelings.

Muhyiddin as deputy president falls into the neutral category. He does not have a particularly reformist image, but is seen as moderate and reasonable.

The one and only clear-cut reformist candidate — Foreign Minister Datuk Rais Yatim — did not make it as vice-president.

Najib's main difficulty will be a Cabinet post for Khairy. The outgoing Prime Minister's son-in-law will be a controversial choice for a Cabinet post, but leaving him out in the cold could invite trouble.

“People always swing to the new president, but trouble starts if they are not accommodated despite winning party posts,” said analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

Khairy's entry into government will spark criticism, undoubtedly partly led by former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. His dislike for Khairy is legendary.

But the Youth chief himself is tainted, having received a warning from the party's disciplinary board for money politics.

Still, some analysts say Khairy may actually be good for reforms. The Oxford-educated leader was one of the very few in Umno who had articulated liberal ideas and multiracial ideals.

His baggage: his ultra-Malay past, whispers about his finger being in every lucrative business pie, and the mixed messages he sends out.

Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian believes that Khairy has actually been the most consistent in advocating an Umno more open to criticism.

“It also helps the party by having a more multifaceted approach towards rejuvenating its image and incorporating representation from different sides of the party, and to avoid group think,” he said.

All in, yesterday was a good day for Najib.

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