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Power struggles in Malaysia

A volunteer checks the seal of a ballot box during the United Malays National Organisation party elections in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur
A volunteer checks the seal of a ballot box during the United Malays National Organisation party elections in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur earlier this month. AFP

Power struggles in Malaysia

Observers of Malaysia soon realise that the most important elections in the country are not those for parliament, but rather those held every three years for posts in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

Helming the National Front government in Kuala Lumpur, UMNO has always been Malaysia’s dominant party and the man elected its president automatically becomes prime minister.

That, at least, has been the case for the past half century; but following setbacks in the last two general elections, the UMNO-led coalition’s unity and future hold on power now looks less certain.

After the 2008 election, when the Front lost a raft of seats and five states – including powerhouse Selangor – UMNO’s then leader, former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, was forced out and replaced by Najib Razak.

As the incoming new PM, Najib vowed to reunify and reinvigorate the coalition, reverse the election setbacks and win back Selangor.

He failed. In last May’s polls, the Front dropped more seats, did not recapture Selangor, and while it retained a majority in parliament, it lost the popular vote.

The swords came out for Najib, now aged 60, and many were sure he would face the same fate as his predecessor Abdullah.

The only problem was that UMNO had no obvious credible figure to take over the leadership.

The PM’s deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, is a dour campaigner who is six years older than Najib and has a somewhat tarnished reputation. Other senior figures in the party are equally uninspiring.

So Najib was able to survive the immediate post-election blues and rally his forces for the more important challenge: UMNO’s party polls on October 19.

Of course, all those partymen who were disillusioned with him also had time to look around for a viable and brave candidate willing to take on the PM.

First up was the old warhorse, Razaleigh Hamzah, who has been in the wilderness since losing the party leadership to former PM Mahathir Mohamad back in 1987.

However, while Razaleigh could have acted as a stalking horse, he was never going to be a credible challenger and so another younger figure stepped forward: Mukhriz Mahathir.

The former veteran PM’s youngest son had already shown himself to be a force in the party by rising to become chief minister of Kedah State.

Kedah is Malay heartland territory and folks there never liked Najib’s early talk of reaching out to the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities, which they viewed as potentially eroding the dominance of the Malays.

But Mukhriz, 48, lacked the stature to challenge the PM directly, so he chose to run for one of the three vice-presidential posts, all of them held by Najib loyalists.

In particular, he targetted Hishammuddin Hussein, the current defence minister, who, until recently, was viewed as Najib’s most likely successor.

Like Mukhriz, Hisham is also the son of a former PM, Hussein Onn, as well as being a cousin of Najib.

But his brutish performance, particularly in his earlier post as Home Minister, won him few friends and it was clear that he was vulnerable.

So it proved last week, when the upstart Mukhriz failed by just eight votes to unseat the powerful Hisham.

Had he succeeded, Mukhriz would have been seen as a potential future PM and a figure around whom the party’s Malay chauvinists and anti-Najib forces could coalesce.

Unfortunately for Mukhriz, however, it was probably his first and last shot of the dice, for another figure, younger and far more charismatic, waits in the wings to take over the leadership: Khairy Jamaluddin.

Re-elected head of the party’s youth wing last week, the stature of Khairy, 37, both among Malays and also Chinese and Indians, is higher than that of most other politicians in the land.

Muhkriz and the right-wing forces around him will likely regroup and take another shot at Najib, but it is now likely that the PM will survive until Khairy is ready to take over.

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