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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Najib’s men move to contain Umno fallout

KUALA LUMPUR, March 19 - Aides and supporters of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak are moving on the ground feverishly to contain the fallout from the decision to bar Datuk Seri Ali Rustam from contesting the deputy president's position in Umno.

With a week to go before the polls, they are concerned that party delegates previously aligned to Ali are now throwing their support behind Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, instead of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, their preferred choice as the party number two and deputy prime minister.

Several Umno divisional chiefs, warlords and opinion makers told The Malaysian Insider that they have been contacted in the past 24 hours by aides and supporters of Najib, urging them to go down to the ground and douse fires of revolt among party delegates who are upset at the action taken by the Umno disciplinary board against Ali.

These influential grassroots leaders have also been asked to talk up Muhyiddin's qualities and his track record. This is the first time those close to Najib are showing their hand, suggesting that there is real concern in the deputy prime minister's camp that the Minister of International Trade and Industry will not be a shoo-in for the deputy president's position.

A divisional chief from Perak said: "Ali was clearly ahead. Now that he is out, many of his supporters are threatening to throw their votes to Mat Taib because they feel that the disciplinary committee has not acted in good faith.

"Party delegates are not stupid. For them, either everyone gets caught or nobody gets caught. Tan Sri Muhyiddin will still win but the margin of victory could be embarrassing. If he is going to command the respect of the party and the country, he has to win by a comfortable margin.''

There have also been feelers sent out to Muhammad Taib, suggesting that he withdraw from the party polls in the interest of party unity. But so far this approach has been rebuffed by the Rural Development Minister. Any backroom deal to prevent a contest for the number two position in Umno is also likely to be unpopular with the rank and file.

The mood on the ground is that every position should be contested, and that the voice of the rank and file must be heard. In a perverse way, the party delegates want to dish out their own brand of justice, believing that the Umno disciplinary board is hamstrung by vested interest and too concerned about making examples of a few individuals to appease critics of money politics.

The Malaysian Insider also understands that officials close to Najib have shown preference for Datuk Ahmad Zahidi, Datuk Shafie Apdal and Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein as vice-presidents.

This endorsement will be most helpful for Hishammuddin, who is said to be in fourth position behind Zahid, Shafie and Datuk Khaled Nordin in the v-p race.

Najib's cousin, he was expected to snare one of the three v-p slots easily but his over confidence and lacklustre machinery has turned into from early favourite to rank outsider.

Given the restive mood in the party, it is unclear if the final push by Najib's supporters to get their slate of candidates elected will be successful or counterproductive.

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