Oct 6, 2008

Pak Lah will not defend the Umno president’s position?

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 6 - No surprises. On Wednesday, after briefing the Cabinet and the Barisan Nasional Supreme council, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will tell Malaysians that he will not defend the Umno president’s position.

His announcement, a day before the start of the Umno divisional elections, will mark the beginning of the end of his premiership, the shortest in the history, and sets the stage for Datuk Seri Najib Razak to be returned unopposed as the president of Umno and prime minister of Malasysia.

Under the transition plan accepted by Abdullah, and endorsed by the party’s supreme council late last month, the PM was expected to decline receiving any nominations from the divisions. In return, the party elections were postponed from December to March to give him the time to complete several reforms which he started.

But since the transition plan was announced, there has been speculation that Abdullah could surprise everyone by deciding to defend his position. Supporters and government officials who have met him over the past 10 days, say that though disappointed with the manner the March transition plan was sprung on him, and while he has come to believe that the groundswell against his leadership in Umno was manufactured, he did not speak about wanting to contest the party elections.

The reason: He believes that Umno cannot survive an all-out contest for the presidency between him and Najib.

An official, who attended a meeting with Abdullah, said: “He believes that the party’s biggest enemy is Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat. I also sense that he does not want to be remembered as someone who put his needs before the party’s. There was pressure from different sources for him to contest, but he just wants to complete several reforms he has started.’’

For example, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a long time critic of the leadership, believes that the transition plan is unconstitutional and Abdullah must defend his party president’s position to reaffirm the party’s commitment to democratic principles.

His critics argue that the Kelantanese prince's desire to see a contest for the top position is self-serving. He too has offered to contest the top position and his chances of garnering the 58 nominations from the divisions will be greatly reduced if the transition plan is accepted by Abdullah and supported by the divisions.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Pakatan Rakyat also want Abdullah to go for broke, knowing that any implosion in the ruling party will create more uncertainty with Umno and BN ranks which can be harvested by the Opposition.

Abdullah has told government officials that he will spend the next few months pushing through judicial reforms and legislation to make the Anti-Corruption Agency more independent. This will not be a walk in the park because there is strong resistance among Umno ministers for any change which will weaken the party’s hold on the institutions.

The vexing question is this: If Abdullah could not convince his Umno ministers of the need for change when he had all the powers, how was he going to do so in a lame duck position?

His supporters say that he must be prepared to be confrontational to keep his promise of strengthening the country’s institutions. Seems like a big ask for someone who has put his party above everything else since becoming PM in October 2003.

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