Mar 24, 2009

All eyes on UMNO's upcoming annual congress

Whether you love or loathe Umno, there is no denying that its much-anticipated 63rd general assembly will be closely monitored when it convenes from this evening. Deputy president Najib Abdul Razak, who will flag off the meeting, will be the man of the moment.

KUALA LUMPUR: In Malaysia, all eyes are on the ruling party United Malays Nasional Organisation's (UMNO) annual congress this week.

55-year-old deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to be installed as UMNO president who, by convention will assume the country's premiership.

His policy speech setting the country's future direction and his choice of cabinet members will be scrutinised by millions within and outside the party.

Since the last general election a year ago, UMNO has been plagued by crisis of confidence, and has been unable to implement crucial reforms as it struggles to regain its footing.

This week's general assembly may well determine the future survival of the party that has dominated Malaysia's politics in the last 50 years.

Incoming president Najib Razak, who is taking over the party's top leadership from Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, has his work cut out for him.

Not only is the economy teetering on the verge of recession, the party UMNO is at its lowest point in history.

Said Abdullah Ahmad, former news editor in chief of NSTP: "I don't envy Najib becoming Prime Minister. You know why? Because this is the worst time, (take for example) economic problems.

"UMNO is not as strong as it used to be - for the first time last year it lost five states. (But Najib) is a good man, he's capable and you'll not be ashamed of having a PM like him."

With the next general election expected to be held before 2013, Mr Najib, who is battling allegations of corruption, may be running out of time to restore negative public perceptions towards himself and the party.

But according to the former news editor, who used to serve under Mr Najib's father, former prime minister Abdul Razak, it is still not too late.

He explained that the choices Mr Najib makes for his team will ultimately determine the fate of UMNO.

"Unless he changes UMNO completely radically, I think he will be the last UMNO prime minister,” he said. “But having said that, a week is a long time in politics, and he’s got two, three more years. He's got time to reinvent himself, reinvent UMNO and I know he wants to do that.

"(But the question is, does) he have the determination, and the political will to do that? This is the real test of his leadership. Who are the people he will bring to his cabinetm, and who will be his advisors?"

Trade minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who has been perceived as having the least political baggage, is favoured to be Mr Najib's second in command.

He faces Vice President Muhd Muhd Taib in a straight fight for the deputy presidency after Mohd Ali Rustam, the Chief Minister of Malacca, was barred from contesting for breach of party ethics.

The race for the party's Youth Chief race is also keenly watched.

There is a three cornered fight that includes Prime Minsiter Abdullah's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, and Mukhriz, son of former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

Meanwhile, former trade minister Rafidah Aziz, dubbed the iron lady, is defending her post as Women’s Chief after umpteen years.

Also up for grabs are three vice president posts and 25 supreme council seats with 51 candidates vying for them.

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