Sep 25, 2008

UMNO party talks trigger speculation over PM's fate

Top Umno leaders will convene an emergency supreme council meeting tomorrow in the hope of finding a way for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to make an honourable exit and pass on the baton to his deputy Najib Abdul Razak by early next year.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling party is to hold high-level talks on Friday, in a hastily arranged meeting that has triggered fresh speculation on the future of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Abdullah was reportedly hit with calls to stand down by four of his Cabinet ministers at a meeting last week of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Supreme Council.

"I believe there will be a special Supreme Council meeting tomorrow," Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters Thursday, but declined to give details of what would be discussed.

Abdullah steered the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional coalition to its worst electoral showing in half a century in March, as voters punished him over broken promises for reform, as well as spiralling prices of food and fuel.

Since then he has resisted repeated calls to quit, and has also been faced with an unprecedented challenge from the opposition, which has said it has enough support from defecting lawmakers to topple the government.

In a bid to end the damaging speculation over his future, which has suppressed foreign investment and trade on the stock market, Abdullah forged a deal to hand over to Najib in mid-2010.

But the pact has been criticised within UMNO, and Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin -- a potential challenger -- said this week that the party faced oblivion if it did not quickly address internal conflicts and the opposition threat.

Online news website Malaysiakini cited UMNO sources as saying that Friday's emergency meeting would likely address the power transition plan.

The site quoted UMNO information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib as saying that all members of the supreme council -- which usually meets monthly -- were informed Thursday of the meeting.

"I am in the dark just as you. All I know is I received the phone call and was told to attend the meeting tomorrow morning," he reportedly said.

A senior party source said that according to a proposal to be discussed at the emergency meeting, Abdullah may quit in June 2009, earlier than the 2010 date planned.

The source said that Abdullah had asked the supreme council to move back leadership elections to next year from December to avoid a contested vote in which he may have been forced out.

"The idea to push back (the party annual meeting) was the prime minister's idea... The 2009 plan and the move to delay the (UMNO) annual general meeting may not go down well with the party grassroots,' said the source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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