By: Our Correspondent

Former Malaysian Premier Mahathir Mohamad today appears to have fired the first volley of a widely anticipated attack on Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, saying the premier’s allies in recent United Malays National Organization intraparty polls preserved their positions in the UMNO hierarchy by buying votes.

“We are told that they’ve eliminated corruption during the recent UMNO election, I am not convinced,” Mahathir told a conference at the country’s administrative capital of Putra Jaya. Although he didn’t mention Najib by name, he said: “I think there was a lot of money involved, going into the millions, and loads of people who should not be getting votes were getting votes because of the money they spent.”

It’s uncertain how much clout the 88-year-old former prime minister still has within the party. He ruled as prime minister for 22 years until handing the position on to Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as his anointed successor in 2003. However, the implications are that the party, Malaysia’s biggest, may face a period of instability as the factions slug it out.

The next showdown, if there is one, could occur when UMNO holds its annual general assembly on Dec. 2-7 although a source in the Mahathir wing of the party said: “It could be, but there isn’t going to be a big bang. Gradual fireworks.”

A recent poll named Mahathir the most popular figure in UMNO, with a 75 percent approval rating, although that didn’t translate into votes for his allies in the UMNO intraparty elections.

Najib emerged from the May 5 national elections appearing badly weakened after the Barisan Nasional lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969 although it preserved a diminished parliamentary majority thanks to gerrymandering. Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin, the former finance minister, blamed Najib for reaching out too much to the country’s Chinese and Indian minorities at the cost of votes from UMNO’s ethnic Malay base.

After the election, Mahathir damned Najib with faint praise in a speech in Tokyo, saying the prime minister would stay in office because there wasn’t anybody at the time to replace him. Bloggers aligned with Mahathir have been staging attacks on the prime minister since the May polls, with one describing him as a “bug on the windshield.”

But Najib, a wily strategist, appears to have made common cause with forces aligned with former PM Badawi, whom Mahathir drove from office in 2008, in an effort to protect his flanks from Mahathir’s attacks. In particular, Najib has enlisted Badawi’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, who was previously reviled within the party. After Khairy was named Youth and Sports Minister, he became head of the youth wing of the party.

Also returned to power was Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, who was appointed head of the women’s wing of the party by Badawi. Shahrizat was forced to step down last year as a senator amid allegations that members of her family had looted the National Feedlot Corporation, a publicly funded project to rear cattle by halal, or Islamic religious methods.

Nonetheless, if Mahathir’s vendetta against Badawi is any indication, he can do considerable damage. Mahathir blamed Badawi for leading the ruling coalition into the loss of its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time since 1957. A months-long intraparty feud ensued before Badawi was driven from office and replaced with Najib.

Most recently the incumbents in the intraparty elections, held on successive weekends earlier this month, were returned to office, mostly by healthy margins, amid accusations that Najib’s forces had poured substantial amounts of money into the races. The vote-buying was termed a “golden storm” by party insiders, with votes going for as much as RM300 (US$95).

Najib and his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, were unopposed in the party elections. However, an unofficial “Mahathir slate” developed for other positions. Particularly, Mahathir was pushing to make his son, Mukhriz, the 49-year-old chief minister of Kedah, one of the three vice presidents, which would have been viewed as a springboard to eventually go for the party presidency and premiership. Mukhriz finished fourth.

Many observers in Kuala Lumpur have long expected an attack on Najib – who is in London for a week-long conference – since May. However, other political observers have pointed out that Najib emerged from the intraparty elections strengthened, with all seven of his candidates returned and with no Mahathir allies in senior positions in the party.

In Najib’s favor, UMNO pulled through with 88 parliamentary seats in the general election, a gain of nine for the party although the Barisan’s component parties lost the same number to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat.

In his Putrajaya speech today, Mahathir attacked the administration as weak, saying that “The political situation now is unstable because the perception is that the government is weak and the lunatic fringe now hold sway over politics in the country. We have a government that is weak because of weak support from the people, and with a tendency to accede to the demands of extremists in the opposition.

“The worst part is that they make extreme demands to unseat the government who can’t get rid of whatever they don’t like. But if you think that they will then say ‘thanks, we will support you now,’ you are mistaken,” he added.

In a story carried by the influential news site Malaysian Insider, Mahathir also appeared to sideswipe Najib for the general election performance, saying vote-buying occurs in general elections as well.

“Initially, we were very nationalistic and thought of the country first,” he said. “The first few general elections were not so much affected by corruption. But the country has come to a stage where corruption is accepted as part of our way of life and culture. Selling votes became a culture, and it is no longer about the country’s progress. When it gets to that stage, corruption is general and rampant.”

Unfortunately, a great deal of that buying and selling votes took place during the 22 years Mahathir was in office, although he recently threatened suit over accusations that he was involved in such practices himself.