Mar 21, 2008

Analysts say tough for Ku Li to shift UMNO support

"If this can help restore UMNO, then I am ready to accept the responsibility. I leave it to UMNO members, I am offering my services," Ku Li

KUALA LUMPUR: Four years ago, the prince from Kelantan tried to mount a challenge against a highly-popular Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) presidency and lost before he could even start.

This week, Mr Razaleigh Hamzah, a former Finance Minister, is back to offer himself as the white knight who could save an UMNO shaken to the core by its disastrous performance in the March 8 general election.

But while Mr Abdullah's political fortunes have plunged, it remains to be seen whether Mr Razaleigh's challenge this time will be any stronger — given the fact that he does not wield as much political clout within the party as he used to in the 1980s.

Amid rumblings within UMNO's rank-and-file that Prime Minister Abdullah should accept full responsibility for the ruling Barisan Nasional's (BN's) loss of its two-third majority in the polls, Mr Razaleigh said on Wednesday he was ready to contest party polls again.

Mr Razaleigh, 71, said he would contest the presidency of UMNO if he is nominated ahead of party elections in August, reported Malaysian newspapers yesterday. By virtue of UMNO's status as the BN's largest member, the party president will automatically become Malaysia's PM.

"If this can help restore UMNO, then I am ready to accept the responsibility. I leave it to UMNO members, I am offering my services," he was quoted as saying by Bernama news agency.

Mr Razaleigh has called for a special UMNO meeting in May to discuss the party's future, but it is unclear if he could muster enough support.

Mr Adnan Mansor, the newly-appointed UMNO secretary-general, responded by saying it was up to party members to decide whether to nominate Mr Razaleigh. But Mr Adnan expressed confidence that Mr Abdullah, 68, still commanded strong support in the party.

Mr Razaleigh's open challenge puts new pressure on Mr Abdullah to keep his grip on UMNO — but it remains to be seen if the rank-and-file also consider the Kelantan royalty as the right man to lead them out of the worst crisis the party is facing since the Anwar Ibrahim affair in the late 1990s.

According to The Malaysian Insider news website, all the power brokers in the party are still aligned to Mr Abdullah and hold senior positions in the party and Cabinet.

There is also little motivation for the likes of UMNO deputy president Najib Razak, UMNO vice-presidents Muhyiddin Yassin and Ali Rustam, and UMNO Youth leader Hishammuddin Hussein, to join Mr Razaleigh since allowing him to become party president could delay their own succession prospects, the news portal added.

Malaysian political analyst Khoo Kay Peng calls Mr Razaleigh's bid for the UMNO presidency a "long shot".

"Tengku Razaleigh has been out of mainstream UMNO politics for more than 10 years. He was most powerful when he was the Finance Minister, but he has lost the clout. It will be difficult for him to shift UMNO's power base and to hold UMNO's network together," he told TODAY.

Mr Khoo believes "some 25 to 30 per cent" of UMNO delegates are likely to vote for Mr Razaleigh in the event of a contest for the UMNO presidency.

Although the odds may be stacked against him, Mr Razaleigh — who could have been the PM had he succeeded in defeating Dr Mahathir Mohamad in the 1987 UMNO presidential election — should not be dismissed as an "opportunist", said political analyst Yang Razali Kassim.

"I think he has proven to be an UMNO loyalist over the years," Mr Yang Razali, who is from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "He challenged Dr Mahathir in the 1980s for the presidency in an open democratic way. He lost by a thin margin, left to form a splinter party but came back to UMNO and disbanded his splinter party for the sake of Malay unity, after a healing period. He has remained in UMNO since then."

And there are those who believe that Mr Razaleigh, whose nickname is Ku Li, may actually stand a chance against Mr Abdullah if the ground sentiments continue to sour.

"Based on past experience, Ku Li should not have much of a chance," said Dr Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

"But we are in a new era now, so all old bets are off. He does have a chance because the UMNO ground is overwhelmed by the losses and things can go one way or the other," Dr Ooi told TODAY.

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