By RAHMAN MOHD332
The most important political development in town has very little to do with Anwar Ibrahim. Instead, it is about the dynamics of the relationship between the Prime Minister and his deputy and how they approach the UMNO party elections that are set to commence with the divisional meetings on 9 October.
Neither Abdullah Ahmad Badawi nor Najib Tun Razak wants to fight the other. They know that this would be disastrous for the party and even prove to be the final nail in its coffin. Both want to honour the spirit, if no longer the exact letter, of the transition plan which originally intended for Najib to take over the premiership and party presidency in June 2010. It was a deal brokered directly by the two men and endorsed by the party Supreme Council.
But things began to fall apart after the loss at the Permatang Pauh by-election even though this had very little to do with Abdullah's leadership (in fact it was seen more as a battle between Anwar Ibrahim and Najib). There was a resurgence of dissent within party ranks led by vice president, Muhyiddin Yassin, and egged on by Mahathir Mohamed from the outside. This was an opportunity to renew the pressure on Abdullah to go now rather than later. But the spark that lit the fire was Najib's statement a couple of weeks ago that although he was committed to the transition plan, he would also leave it to the divisions to decide whether they want to support it as well. Politics is all about signaling. For many in the party, that statement by Najib was a signal that he would contest the presidency against Abdullah.
Opportunistic dissenters like Muhyiddin latched onto Najib's statement and instigated the grassroots to create a groundswell effect against Abdullah in order to pressure him to bow out in December. For Muhyiddin, this would be a dream scenario with him walking into the deputy presidency of the party probably unchallenged and thereby becoming also the Deputy Prime Minister. Everything came to a head at last week's UMNO Supreme Council meeting where three members – Muhyiddin, Shafie Apdal and Rafidah Aziz - came out to ask Abdullah to hand over power to Najib earlier than the scheduled timetable. Pro-Abdullah forces in the council were told to stand down during the meeting in order to not worsen the situation.
So what does Najib do now? For all intents and purposes, he is still outwardly committed to the transition plan and does not want to fight Abdullah. He knows that if he digs his heels in with Abdullah, the top job will be there for him by mid 2010 at the latest but in all probability much earlier since Abdullah himself has said that he is willing to be flexible about retiring sooner. The only thing that worries Najib is that if he sticks with Abdullah and there is a challenge from a Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah-Muhyiddin team, he might get swept away along with Abdullah. However, these fears are unfounded. Party leaders know that if Najib swings his support totally behind Abdullah and their forces work together on the ground, there is no other alternative combination that can beat them.
For Najib, if he decides not to honour his word to Abdullah, he knows he will be stuck with Muhyiddin as his deputy. This would be a problem for him later because the two men are suspicious of one another having once been rivals for the job of Abdullah's deputy. Muhyiddin has also demonstrated via his dissent towards Abdullah that he is a man who has no qualms stabbing his boss in the back, and may do the same to Najib especially in a time of political crisis. Muhyiddin will also not be beholden to Najib because he will think that his elevation to deputy premier and deputy president of UMNO has little to do with Najib. So for these reasons, Najib will not want Muhyiddin as his deputy.
Najib would be in a much more comfortable position if he goes with the transition deal with Abdullah, and then when the time comes for Abdullah to step down, Najib would have three vice presidents to choose from as his deputy. Not only does this give him the luxury of choice but it will most certainly make the person he selects as his deputy completely beholden to him because it will be entirely Najib's decision unlike the scenario of having Muhyiddin forced on him.
There are also other reasons Najib should stick with Abdullah. As far as UMNO members are concerned, Najib may be popular. This is courtesy of a solid network that he has cultivated for the last three decades. But his image and credibility publicly is something else. For many people Najib is synonymous with the brutal murder of the Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu. Regardless of Najib's repeated religious oaths that he never even met Altantuya, the taint refuses to go away especially since the man accused of abetting the murder, Razak Baginda, was a close advisor and friend to Najib. Apart from the Altantuya case, Najib is also dogged by shady arms purchases notably the procurement of Sukhoi fighter jets and submarines in which Razak is suspected of pocketing hundreds of millions of Ringgit worth of commission direct from the principal. So with the SAS (Sukhoi, Altantuya, Submarine) scandal tarnishing his public image, Najib still needs Abdullah as a shield of sorts. In fact, Anwar is relentless in his attacks on the SAS issues exposing it as Najib's vulnerable Achilles' heel. So long as Abdullah is around, Najib can use the time to rehabilitate his public image especially with his new portfolio at the Treasury where he can enact popular policies to deflect the public's attention from the SAS issues.
Finally, the last thing Najib wants is to go through a bruising fight with Abdullah. Najib may ultimately win the battle with current sentiment against Abdullah and his formidable network in UMNO, but could lose the war because of a damaged and divided party.. Abdullah may be against the ropes but he's not going to be a pushover. His supporters will use every advantage of incumbency to fight any challenge and it will significantly split UMNO. This is something that Najib can ill-afford. Even if he takes on and beats Abdullah, he will be left with a party ruined. The implications of this are serious. If BN component parties see a broken UMNO, they might just take it as a signal to jump ship and join Anwar. That could prove to be the final act on the demise of UMNO and it will be on Najib's watch.
So although Najib may feel insecure about taking his chances with Abdullah for the fear of going down with him, he stands to gain more from sticking to the transition plan and fighting it out by Abdullah's side. It will give him the freedom to choose his deputy, a shield against attacks, time to rehabilitate his battered public image and it will avoid a damaging contest that can destroy UMNO. It must also be remembered that the next few months will be crucial on Anwar front. The sodomy trial will get under way and Najib will not want to be alone when all the sordid details of the case are revealed given his association with Saiful Bukhari Azlan who accuses Anwar of having sodomized him. Without Abdullah, the focus will be entirely on Najib and this could damage further his public image.
Given these arguments, Najib should come out soon to give a categorical statement to support Abdullah's candidacy for party president. It may not only appear to be the wisest choice but also one that will make Najib most secure in the long run.
Note:The above article was contributed by Rahman Mohd332, a regular reader of this blog who is also a writer.This blog is not responsible for the content and opinion expressed therein.