Malaysia’s Besieged PM May Concede Power

Reports that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has promised shell shocked stalwarts in the United Malays National Organisation that he will step down in 2009 leave the party open for a free-for-all that appears likely to be won by his nemesis – former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has done his best to drive Badawi from power.

UMNO lieutenants have been baying for Badawi’s head ever since the unprecedented gains by opposition parties in the March 9 election broke the ruling Barisan Nasional’s 50-year chokehold on power. The 82-year-old Mahathir, who has been hammering away at Badawi virtually since the latter succeeded him in 2002, had been largely regarded as irrelevant as late as last year, when Badawi’s forces engineered a putsch that kept him from even being seated at the UMNO national convention.

Mahathir gained, however, by conspicuously not campaigning for UMNO in the most recent election, particularly after Badawi replaced a lot of Mahathir’s allies in an effort to bring in some fresh blood. According to one political figure, “His [Mahathir’s] phone hasn’t stopped ringing since the election.” Despite Badawi’s efforts, the former PM is still a force.

Although most observers outside the party believe the poll debacle happened because Badawi didn’t go far enough in attempting to reform the political process, top UMNO figures want to return it to its previous strong-arm state – a recipe for disaster to the public, perhaps, but one that would keep them at the trough. Although new names are starting to rise to prominence in the wake of the election , they appear to be figures determined to perpetuate the policies that got UMNO into trouble in the first place – especially the ethnic nationalism for Malays over the minority Chinese and Indian populations, which has resulted in cronyism, political favoritism and corruption in parceling out government contracts to a rent-seeking class that critics have dubbed “umnoputras,” a play on the word bumiputra, or “son of the soil” in Malay.

Certainly, UMNO's gentle hints asking Badawi to resign have become impatient nudges. His own state constituency in Penang asked him to step down after the Barisan lost the state to the opposition Democratic Action Party.

"If changes are not made immediately, UMNO will also lose power and never make a comeback....I worry if there are no changes made, as demanded not only by UMNO members but also by people from outside the party, the people will reject Barisan Nasional and UMNO. I think sentiments are boiling at the grassroots. Therefore, if change does not happen in UMNO, many adverse things will surface," Muhyiddin Yassin, who is one of four party vice-presidents and Minister of International Trade and Industry, told reporters.

Bernama, the national news agency, reported Sunday that Badawi said that Najib Tun Razak, the UMNO deputy president and deputy prime minister “would be his successor and he would hand over the post when it is time.” However, Najib is lumbered with a variety of procurement scandals from his continuing tenure as defense minister as well as the fact that his best friend and his two personal bodyguards are involved in a marathon trial for the murder of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu in 2006.

Najib has also been involved in numerous well-publicized bouts of Malay nationalism and there have been less-than-complimentary reports about his wife’s influence in political affairs. Although no mention has been made during the long-running trial of his friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, a policewoman who accompanied Najib’s two bodyguards to pick up Altantuya from Abdul Razak’s house is believed to have been Najib’s wife’s bodyguard.

According to some Malaysian sources, Badawi will announce that he is stepping down during UMNO party elections slated for later this year, thus handing the party over to Najib. However, Mahathir is said to be cool on Najib, believing him to be too much of a “yes-man” for Badawi.

Two rising stars are said to be Mohamad Kir Toyo and Muhyiddin, who for better or worse appears to have the approval of Mahathir, and who comes from one of UMNO’s most important strongholds, the state of Johor.

Both carry baggage. Khir Toyo is the former chief minister of the state of Selangor, who lost his job when the opposition won the state. He has come under fire for approving a construction project some years ago that trespassed on a forest preserve, for uprooting squatters and for building a luxurious RM40 million “exco village” for the government. Muhyiddin Yasin, also a former chief minister, in the state of Johor, tangled repeatedly as long as 20 years ago with Najib and is said to be attempting to push him aside to become Badawi’s successor.

If the scenario takes place in which Badawi formally anoints Najib, Muhyiddin will be left on the outside. He reportedly is agitating to have Badawi step aside immediately. He is close to all sides. Badawi named him in his new cabinet to replace a Mahathir stalwart, Rafidah Aziz as Trade and Industry Minister. Mahathir himself, however, has made encouraging noises that stop short of a full endorsement.

In the meantime, onetime Finance Minister and perennial candidate Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a member of the Kelantan royal family, has demanded a party emergency general meeting and issued a call for a return to Malay superiority.

"The BN will be stuck fighting fires within its own ranks and will not be able to effectively present a coherent strategy and introduce policies as a response to the 2008 election results. As a result, it seems likely that the Barisan will continue to weaken as (the opposition) continues to consolidate and present itself as a credible government in waiting,” says Ong Kian Ming, an election expert and PhD candidate in political science at Duke University.

Then there is Anwar Ibrahim, whose ban from politics expired April 14 and whose return to national affairs, even without a formal seat in the Dewan Rakyat, or National Parliament, has been spectacular. Today he in effect heads the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, the lead party in the Pakatan Rakyat, the so-called People’s Coalition of three opposition parties that upended the Barisan’s reign.

Although Anwar has denied that money and cabinet posts are being offered to lure MPs to the opposition, it's probably political opportunism that's motivating previously satisfied MPs to leap. As a senior political journalist wrote, "The argument is that those crossing over are doing it voluntarily and not out of pecuniary gain but for goodness sake, who really believes that?" Another foreign journalist also remarked, "If not for the money, why would they do it?"

But it’s questionable how much people inside the opposition or outside it, for that matter, trust Anwar. Some critics suggest he could take Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the predominantly urban Malay party, into the ruling national coalition, or possibly go back himself to UMNO although the resultant explosion might doom him once again.

For now, Anwar holds a strong hand. Look for him to play it cautiously.