Its time to crack the whip

Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has cleared a crucial hurdle now that the Umno elections are behind him but he may find that leading Umno is no longer like galloping on a horse but more akin to riding a tiger.

DATUK Seri Najib Tun Razak was in a relaxed mood when he arrived for a press conference a day after the Umno polls.

And why not? The Umno president now has a team that he feels comfortable with. All the
presidents men won in the vice-presidents (VPs) contest and on top of that the new Umno election system had also run much more smoothly than expected.

Najib ought to be feeling on top of the world but as those close to him often say, Najib is a moderate person in every sense of the word. He is not someone who has extreme highs or lows.

Or as a close associate put it:
You will not find him wildly exuberant or wildly unhappy. He operates on an even keel.

Having the support of the party is important for any political leader. There is no denying that the Umno election results have brought greater stability to the party and strengthened his presidency. He is definitely in control in the short and medium term.

Immediately after the general election, his political detractors had predicted that he would be challenged and undermined in the party. But Najib
s position in Umno is now far stronger than that of his counterparts in other political parties.

The results also signal several things about Najib and Umno. First, it reaffirmed his legendary political network among the Umno division chiefs. This network goes back to his days as Umno Youth chief and has long been a source of his political clout. His rangkaian sahabat or network of friends delivered what he wanted.

Second, Najib has a firm hold over his own state, Pahang, where every single one of the 14 divisions gave their vote to the VP incumbents Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein. A leader who wants his party to fall in line needs to show that his home ground is in order and his home troops are with him.

Third, the party acknowledges that he led Umno to a stronger standing in the general election and they have given him the mandate.

The fact that the two top posts went uncontested shows that members want to see continuity and they agree in principle with his transformation agenda. His challenge now is to rein in the right-wing voices and bring the party back towards the centre.

He needs to endear Umno to the general populace again and he needs the support of the VPs and the three wings for that, said Terengganu politician Datuk Wan Farid Wan Salleh.

Not everyone in his party wants to go the middle way but having won the mandate, it is now up to him to do what it takes to bring the debate back to a more rational level.

Basically, this Umno election was more about the stability of the party and less about succession. At the top, it was clearly about stability which the grassroots understood in their own way, said the Najib associate.

The terrible split caused by the contest for the presidency in 1987 seems to have led to the convention that the top post should be decided by consensus rather than contest. As such, there was great relief when both Najib and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin were returned unopposed as No 1 and No 2 respectively.

The big changes were taking place at the lower level. For instance, there was about 30% new faces among the division chiefs which is quite remarkable because it is very hard to dislodge a division chief.

And if one included the new faces coming in at the level of the deputy and vice-chiefs in the divisions, the renewal rate would be more than 50%. This is not counting the new blood emerging in the three wings at the branch and division levels.

The Umno polls also provided a glimpse of the party succession in the coming years.

Home Minister Zahid is on the way up after coming in as the top VP for the second time. He was only six divisions short of a complete sweep. His performance exceeded the expectations of his own campaign team.

His team does not deny that the only way to go for their man is up and they are, of course, talking about the No 2 slot in the party. But they stressed that Zahid will only go for it if the post is vacant.

s team is also very realistic. They said he will not get it free, meaning that there will likely be a challenge for the seat.

Everyone loves a winner and the buzz surrounding Zahid is bound to increase in the years ahead particularly given recent developments in Pagoh, Johor, where Muhyiddin is the division chief.

Muhyiddin had hinted to the 600 delegates at the Pagoh division meeting a week ago that this might be his last term and that he may not be around in the coming term.

He has mentioned this many times to us in private conversations and meetings. The transition is already in place in our division. It has been very smooth and transparent, said Datuk Dr Shahruddin Salleh who is Jorak assemblyman and a former political secretary to Muhyiddin.

The recent elections in Pagoh saw the deputy and vice chiefs giving way to new blood. Bukit Serampang assemblyman Ismail Mohamed, who is only 42, took over as the new deputy chief and Dr Shahruddin, 57, is the new vice-chief.

But the thing is that Najib is very comfortable with Muhyiddin who had turned out to be a loyal and committed deputy. It will be Muhyiddin
s call.

In the spotlight

Zahid knows that everyone is watching him and Muhyiddin the way they watch Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir at political events.

He has become rather self conscious about it and when he joined the Barisan Nasional entourage in Sungai Limau, Kedah, on nomination day, he took pains to keep two steps behind

Muhyiddin and sat at the back of the stage as the Barisan leaders waited for the nominations to close.

He does not want to appear to be too eager or to overstep his position because Muhyiddin is still the boss.

Publisher Datuk A. Kadir Jasin has even gone so far as to predict a Zahid-Khairy Jamaluddin hook-up. Kadir wrote in his blog that Zahid
s impressive win means that he has moved from being a loyal lieutenant to a contender for the Umno leadership.

He said Zahid could represent the Malay voice of Umno whereas Khairy could be the contemporary and international face of the party.

But running the country is more than just being a Malay voice or having a modern and international image. A leader of a modern state needs to be able to manage the economy and be well versed in international politics, which means that the two men have a long way to go despite their political success in Umno.

s succession, said the Najib associate, will only become clearer at the next Umno polls.

Zahid may have a little problem, though. Umno
s history is such that the No 1 VP does not always get to be the deputy president.

For instance, Najib was the top VP but Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad picked Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as his deputy after the sacking of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.

Back in the 1980s, Dr Mahathir was the No 3 VP but then Prime Minister Tun Hussein Onn chose him when the No 2 post became vacant.

It is a slippery ladder to the coveted job. You can be two inches from the top and not make it thanks to one stupid move, as in the case of Anwar.

The thing is not to be too presumptuous about moving up but to perform and keep in sync with the president.

Fortunately for Zahid, Najib does not have that Machiavelli thing in him. He is not into pitting one person against the other, as he is a consensus-builder and he dislikes conflict.

Najib recognises that the wave of support for Mukhriz signals the multiple voices in Umno but it was evident he was not convinced that Mukhriz was quite ready for VP-level politics.

Amid the groundswell for Mukhriz, there were also views that his VP bid was akin to
trying to get into Form One without completing primary school.

In hindsight, had Mukhriz stuck to his earlier decision to go for a supreme council post, he would have made it to the top of the heap. Instead, he now has to settle for an appointed seat in the supreme council.

Said a Najib insider:
He could have been the one seated at the end closer to the president and not at the far end. In his quest to represent the younger voices of Umno, he weakened his own voice. Hopefully, he will emerge as his own man and become a leader in his own right after this.

Like Hishammuddin and Khairy, he too will get a second chance to prove that he is more than just his fathers son or, in Khairys case, a son-in-law. Such is the burden of dynastic politics.

Najib has cleared a crucial hurdle with the Umno election behind him. He can now turn his attention to the economy and national affairs.

But that does not mean it is going to be a cruise for him in the party. Unlike his predecessor, he is not riding a horse that can jump over hurdles and gallop ahead.

Instead he is riding a tiger.

He clearly knows how to feed it but he must start using the whip too. Tigers can never be tamed but they can be trained to obey a firm master, said the Najib insider.





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