All eyes on Najib now
Saturday, 20 September 2008 08:03am
• Umno chiefs split on pace of leadership change
©The Straits Times, Singapore (Used by permission)by Carolyn Hong, Malaysia Bureau Chief
Malaysia's Deputy PM cancels an official trip a day after PM Abdullah is told to quit soonKUALA LUMPUR: Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak yesterday cancelled an official trip to the Middle East on short notice, a day after Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was asked by senior Umno leaders to take early retirement.
That has sparked speculation that the Prime Minister may leave office sooner rather than later, perhaps even before the December party polls.Datuk Seri Najib's aides said he had originally been scheduled to leave yesterday for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and not return until early next month.Instead, he will go directly to New York next Thursday to attend the United Nations General Assembly.Mr Najib said: 'I have to reorganise my schedule so that I can move into the Finance Ministry on Monday and start work, particularly at a time of uncertainty in the world economy and world stock markets.' He was appointed Finance Minister by Datuk Seri Abdullah on Wednesday.Mr Abdullah had planned to retire in mid-2010, but appears to have accelerated the move on the advice of senior members of the Umno Supreme Council who warned him that opinion against him continuing in office was growing.The Straits Times understands that Mr Najib had been advised by senior Umno leaders not to be away for too long in uncertain political times. They believe that he could help unite Umno and end the threat of its MPs defecting to the opposition.In fact, an Umno MP from Johor, Mr Nur Jazlan Mohamad, started the ball rolling yesterday when he called on Mr Najib to declare that he would vie for the party presidency.'Should Najib make it as prime minister, I believe the party would consolidate behind him and the process of strengthening Umno would begin,' he wrote in his blog yesterday.Umno members see Mr Abdullah as incapable of keeping opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim from toppling the government.An unnamed Umno Youth leader in Kedah, who has been meeting the northern divisions, said that grassroots members favoured a team comprising Mr Najib and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, the Minister of International Trade and Industry.'They just want a change at the top,' he said.Mr Najib has privately voiced concerns that the party would split if he challenges Mr Abdullah for the presidency. But this is unlikely if the Prime Minister gives way.Mr Najib has strong grassroots support from his days in Umno Youth. He is dogged by allegations of corruption and links to the murder of a Mongolian woman, but this has little impact within Umno which runs on a system of loyalty and patronage.If the Deputy Premier takes over, it will almost certainly end Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah's chances of contesting for the presidency even if former premier Mahathir Mohamad openly supports him.The Straits Times understands that Mr Najib met the former premier on Sept 9, and their discussions included the transition plan. Tun Dr Mahathir was believed to have told Mr Najib that he had to be unequivocal in his stand.Three days later, Mr Najib told reporters that the transition plan was subject to agreement by Umno's grassroots, a sign that he is willing to go for the top post.Certainly, that could hurt Mr Anwar's ride to Putrajaya. Disgruntled Umno MPs may think twice about defecting if they see a chance for a more stable Barisan Nasional.It seems clear that Mr Abdullah's decision on the transition will have to be made before Umno's sub-divisions start their meetings on Oct 9.Any hesitation could force Mr Najib to declare his candidacy for president.'The ball is now in Najib's hands,' said Mr Nur Jazlan. 'If he drops it by failing to take up the challenge from Umno members, maybe they will decide to drop him and find somebody else to be their leader.'