Friday, September 19, 2008

Pak Lah ponders his future

Pak Lah ponders his future

SEPT 20 — An uneasy calm settled upon Malaysia today as speculation over Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s political future went into overdrive.
A decision by Datuk Seri Najib Razak to cancel at the eleventh hour his trip to the Middle East had the effect of sending the Kuala Lumpur Rumour Index upwards with many Malaysians taking it as a sign that a major announcement was imminent.
Much of the debate over Abdullah’s transition plan is being fuelled by proceedings of Thursday’s Umno supreme council meeting which has been leaking by dribs and drabs into the public domain. In a nutshell, several council members urged Abdullah to consider stepping down as the party president now, instead of 2010.
Among those who spoke up were Datuk Shafie Apdal, Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Datuk Rafidah Aziz. Each one of them employed a different tact and tone, with Rafidah speaking with usual candour and Muhyiddin opting for biting comments.
The Malaysian Insider understands that the critics had agreed on Tuesday on a strategy to send a message to Abdullah, and even picked the council member who would kick start the attack. But because Malaysia leaks like a sieve, news of this planned attack soon found their way to several other council members who are Abdullah loyalists.
A few of them met Abdullah before the council meeting and proposed to launch a preemptive attack against Muhyiddin and his ilk. But the PM disagreed, saying that he wanted to know the sentiments of the council.
After the critics had their say, Najib intervened and said that he and Abdullah were in constant discussion over the transition plan, and would continue to do so.
The Malaysian Insider understands that hearing out the supreme council is part of Abdullah’s game plan of gauging the mood of the party. Some of his supporters are telling him to take his time, arguing that he still is in a good position to snare the enough nominations to contest the party president’s position in December.
Any decision on the transition plan is only going to be made after he has received feedback from all the states. Sabah Umno sent word yesterday saying that its support for Abdullah was intact while the view from Selangor after a meeting of division chiefs yesterday was that Abdullah should hand over the controls to Najib as soon as possible.
This process should be completed soon. What is clear is that staying on until 2010 is no longer part of the equation. The only question on the table is this: should Abdullah contest the party elections?

Abdullah may not seek re-election
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 19 — There is a possibility that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi may not seek re-election at the December polls of Umno — of which he is president — following a meeting yesterday of the party’s supreme council, according to party insiders.
Even as recently as Wednesday, Abdullah had maintained that he would seek re-election. But the insiders said the meeting had been “lively and frank” and that while no firm decision had been taken on the handover of power — Abdullah has said he will hand over the job to his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak by June 2010 — the message delivered to Abdullah was that he was not popular at the grassroots.
Abdullah has been under pressure following the Barisan Nasional’s disastrous showing in the March 8 general election. Since then he has had to continually fight bushfires that included ferocious and relentless attacks from former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Abdullah's popularity in the party further waned following opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's spectacular victory in the Permatang Pauh by-election. Anwar won an increased majority which indicated that the Malays were still staying away from the party that claimed to champion their cause.
A mishandled crisis in his home state of Penang further demonstrated that Abdullah had lost the support of his home base while last week's arrests of three people under the Internal Security Act lent further credence to the thesis that Abdullah's administration was losing credibility.
According to party insiders, the issues came to the fore during yesterday's meeting with some supreme council members speaking bluntly to the premier. One leader, apparently, even told Abdullah that he would not get the nominations necessary to run for party president. Under party rules, a challenger for the presidency needs 58 nominations to run for the post.
More tellingly, International Trade Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who said in Singapore two weeks ago that Abdullah should step down sooner rather than later, wasn't criticised, indicating that his statement was supported by a majority of supreme council members.
The meeting came to a conclusion when Najib stepped in to quell the debate, saying he would discuss the matter further with Abdullah.
This was reinforced by Abdullah who told the press he would meet Najib later. “Whatever decision I make, I will discuss with Najib and the supreme council will be informed,” Abdullah told reporters.
Meanwhile, Abdullah also rejected a challenge put forward by Anwar. The opposition leader threw down the gauntlet yesterday, asking the prime minister to convene an emergency parliamentary sitting to deliberate a no-confidence motion against his leadership “by no later than Tuesday, Sept 23”.
Anwar said that because Abdullah clearly did not believe he had more than 31 possible defectors, “then go to Parliament”. Anwar has consistently maintained that he had the numbers to topple the government.
But the premier declined to take the bait, saying that Parliament was due to meet after Hari Raya anyway.
Separately, Abdullah said that neither “Anwar nor anybody else” would be arrested under the ISA. There had been speculation that the government was planning to crack down on the opposition following Anwar's threats to topple the government. — Business Times Singapore

Abdullah’s options
KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 20 — Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s hopes of engineering a graceful departure on his own terms are fast fading in the face of widening discontent in the ruling Umno and the growing threat of opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim taking over the government.
There is speculation that Abdullah will bring forward his plans of handing over power in 2010 to as early as next month, or at least declare that he won't seek re-election as Umno president when the party holds its elections in December. The Umno president traditionally assumes the premiership.
His closest aides concede that his options are narrowing.
“He has the next three weeks to decide whether he sticks to his retirement plan or declare that he will go sooner,” says a close friend of Abdullah, who asked not to be named.
The associate and other close aides say that Abdullah wants to stick around so as to push ahead with reforms, particularly of the country's much-criticised judiciary.
But his ability to do so will depend on whether he is able to secure the necessary number of nominations from Umno's divisions to defend his post as party president. Umno divisions will begin their meetings early next month.
At a heated session of the party's supreme council on Thursday, Abdullah was pointedly told of a groundswell among the party's rank-and-file for him to quickly hand over the reins to his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.
The requests for his early retirement — sometimes in not-so- polite language from one-time allies such as former International Trade Minister Datuk Seri Rafidah Aziz and her successor Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin — were laced with a threat: If Abdullah refused to resign, he ran the risk of being humiliated by the party divisions, which would not nominate him to the Umno presidency.
“It all boils down to whether he thinks he can get the nominations,” says a close associate, who believes that Abdullah still enjoys widespread goodwill among Umno's rank-and-file, particularly in the rural Malay heartland.
What Abdullah decides to do will depend in part on Najib, who has thus far remained loyal to his boss. Widely considered to be Umno's most powerful warlord, Najib is under increasing pressure from his own supporters to take over the leadership.
They argue that unless Abdullah hands over the reins of power quickly, Umno is likely to be booted from power by Anwar's opposition alliance, which is threatening to eject the government by securing a majority in Parliament through defections from the ruling coalition.
They insist that Najib will be able to consolidate the various factions in Umno and renew the party's dominance in the Barisan Nasional coalition. The coalition is showing signs of cracks because of differences over race and religion among its ethnic-based component parties.
A small minority in Umno believe that Najib may opt for the status quo for the time being. Here's why:
Should he assume the Umno presidency now, he would have to select a deputy from Umno's two vice-presidents, Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Mohamed Ali Rustam, who is also the Chief Minister of Malacca.
Umno officials say that Najib isn't keen on either and is more partial to Datuk Zahid Hamidi, who is Information Minister and his former political secretary.
In any case, Najib's promotion to the presidency ahead of the Umno elections will trigger a scramble for the deputy presidency, a contest that will spilt an already fractured Umno, they argue.
But this is a view few analysts and senior party officials subscribe to. They believe that Najib risks alienating his own supporters should he continue to remain loyal to Abdullah.
Some analysts say that Abdullah wants to stay in office to repair his tattered record since becoming Umno president and premier in November 2003. He secured an impressive mandate in the 2004 elections with his pledge to pursue sweeping economic and political reforms. But his government has yet to deliver on these promises and his popularity has slumped to its lowest levels in recent months.
Government debt has hit a record high and the country's fiscal deficit now hovers at 4.8 per cent of gross domestic product. While the economy is set to expand by at least 5 per cent this year, Malaysians are grappling with record inflation of around 8.5 per cent and slow job growth.
But the more serious blemish on Abdullah's report card is political. The BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament and control of another four state assemblies on his watch. His premiership will long be associated with those losses. — Straits Times Singapore

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