KUALA LUMPUR, March 28 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak today pulled off a major public relations coup by brokering a rapprochement of sorts between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The former prime minister and the current prime minister shook hands on stage at the end of the five-day Umno General Assembly.
Najib told the delegates earlier that he would try and bring Dr Mahathir and Abdullah together and consult both of them on party and national issues.
But while party members loved the idea of Dr Mahathir returning to Umno and the prospect of the two former party presidents putting their differences aside, not everyone was elated over today’s sideshow.
Abdullah’s supporters in Putra World Trade Centre burnt the lines, telegraphing their dismay that he had to share the same billing with his most trenchant critic on what should have been his special day.
They acknowledged that the move to get Dr Mahathir and his wife, Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Ali, to attend the party assembly was good but questioned their dramatic entrance midway through Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s speech.
Rapturous applause greeted Dr Mahathir and his wife as they made their way to the VIP seats in the balcony overlooking Dewan Merdeka.
A beaming Muhyiddin, a strong supporter of the Dr Mahathir, paused for a couple of minutes before saying that he hoped that the former prime minister’s presence indicated a willingness to rejoin Umno.
Dr Mahathir’s entry into the hall caught many by surprise, including Abdullah.
A supreme council member said: “This was arranged for maximum effect but the people behind this plan should have taken into account Pak Lah’s feelings. Was there a need to humiliate him like this? Today we needed to give him a proper send-off for his service as the president and for doing the gracious thing and giving way to Najib.”
All said, Najib and Muhyiddin were probably looking foremost at trying to give the party they are inheriting a boost.
They know that there is considerable affection for Dr Mahathir in the party and must have figured that getting him to bury the hatchet with Abdullah would infuse Umno with a feel-good factor before three important by-elections on April 7.
Dr Mahathir has been a harsh critic of Abdullah since 2005, accusing him of allowing his family members and his close advisors to run the country.
Much of his anger towards Abdullah stems from the belief that his successor did not consult him on government policies and went out of his way to undermine his legacy.
In the run-up to the general election in 2008, Dr Mahathir urged Malaysians to vote for the opposition and in May last year he quit Umno, saying that he had lost confidence in Abdullah’s leadership.
He was invited to attend the opening of the party assembly on Thursday but did not show up in protest against Umno Youth voting Khairy Jamaluddin as the Youth chief, instead of his son Datuk Mukhriz.
In his speech at the opening of the assembly, Abdullah acknowledged his debt of gratitude to Dr Mahathir for appointing him as the deputy prime minister in 1999 and then prime minister in October 2003.
Today, in his final address, he did not mention Dr Mahathir by name but said that he forgave all those who bore ill-feelings against him.
Dr Mahathir showed little emotion throughout Abdullah’s speech but was visibly pleased when Najib acknowledged his presence and urged him to rejoin the party.
Najib also told party delegates that he planned to get Dr Mahathir and Abdullah to sit down with him and discuss party and national issues.
This suggestion brought the house down.
The first meeting may be awkward but once the ice was broken, there could be free-flowing discussion between them in follow-up discussion, he suggested.
Najib’s move to bring Dr Mahathir back into fold and consult him on policy matters is understandable.
Not many people in Malaysia relish the idea of crossing swords with the battle-hardened former prime minister.
At the closing of the assembly, Dr Mahathir and his wife made their way down from the balcony to the main stage where they exchanged greetings with senior Umno officials.
All eyes were on him as he made his way to the centre of the stage. Abdullah shook his hand and whispered something into his ear.
There will be one photograph on the front page of all the newspapers tomorrow. It will show Muhyiddin, Najib, Dr Mahathir and Abdullah with their hands raised in unison.
A definite PR coup. But not everyone in PWTC was united in their belief that Dr Mahathir would let bygones be bygones and stop attacking Abdullah or his son-in-law.