Umno clamours for order amid challenges
Friday, 19 September 2008 09:14am
©New Straits Times (Used by permission)POLITICS is usually played at lower decibels during Ramadan. But not this year.
Instead of the murmur of prayers, Umno members are hearing more whispers of plots and conspiracies during this holiest of Muslim months.Aspiring leaders are disguising campaigns -- forbidden to them and their agents -- as religious and social events such as breaking of fast and special terawih prayers. In Kelantan, it's makan colek time, where members gather after terawih prayers to eat bite-size fruits, boiled and fried meat dipped in sweet sauce, and engage in political talk.In a week's time, there will be many contributions to the "poor and needy" events. Come Syawal, it will be time for Hari Raya open house functions.The stakes are high for these party offenders. Many have been suspended in the past for contravening the party's code of ethics in these matters. Obviously, this is not deterring the ambitious.
While many of those likely to be among the 2,000 delegates (read: voters) at the general assembly -- the "G7" and "G6" members -- have already been showered with gifts of various forms, agents continuously complain of not having enough money to "grease the machinery". ("G7" refers to the delegates to the general assembly from the division while "G6" refers to divisional committee members.)All these activities are setting the tone for the December party elections -- the most crucial being the divisional elections taking place between Oct 9 and Nov 9, where grassroots leaders will determine whether Umno, now at its weakest in history, can rebound and rule again as it did in its glory days.Under Umno's constitution, divisions have to nominate candidates to contest for the posts of president, deputy president, three vice-presidents and 25 members of the supreme council.They can decide either to maintain the status quo or push for elections by nominating candidates of their choice, despite a transition plan already agreed between party president Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his deputy, Datuk Seri Najib Razak.Abdullah and Najib have both declared they are seeking re-election for their respective posts. Political observers see that the June 2010 power transition began on Wednesday, in the swapping of the Finance and Defence ministerial portfolios between Abdullah and Najib -- a move seen by many as providing a good training ground for the latter as a party president and prime minister-in-waiting.Abdullah also indicated that he might step down before the deadline if his reform agenda is achieved sooner than expected, a statement popularly viewed as intended to appease the grassroots, who have been calling for an accelerated time frame for Abdullah's departure and for Najib to contest the presidency.But democracy still prevails in Umno. Contest has always been encouraged, although the requirement for an aspirant to obtain a certain quota of nominations can be an obstacle.Umno warlords controlling the divisions are powerful enough to dictate the outcome of nominations for top positions in the party. A sizeable proportion of Umno's 20,000 branches, which completed their meetings last week, made off-beat nominations for top party posts after the transition plan was announced a couple of months ago.Umno's constitution requires branches to only nominate candidates for divisional posts, but these branches went a step further, opting to nominate candidates for top party posts. This, according to the party constitution, is the job of the divisions.The branches know their nominations may not even be considered by the divisions, but are still hopeful that those nominated as delegates at divisional meetings will convey their aspirations.Some think Abdullah and Najib were compelled to reassure Umno's 3.2 million members that they are united in reviving the weakened party because of opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's siege on the Federal Government, although the much-anticipated exodus of Barisan Nasional members of parliament to the Pakatan Rakyat opposition did not materialise on Sept 16 as pledged.Anwar is using a fractious Umno to paint a picture of leaders too weak to govern the country, leaving him as the ultimate alternative choice.Aspiring candidates have begun offering themselves to contest, in the hope of getting enough nominations to make them eligible.They need to meet the quota on nominations, however, which is why aspirants are willing to cross boundaries to persuade divisions to nominate them.The quota system was introduced under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad after Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah challenged him for the Umno presidency in 1987, precipitating a crisis that eventually saw Umno being declared illegal. Since then, the post of party president has not been contested.Tengku Razaleigh did make an attempt to challenge Abdullah in 2004 but failed -- he received only one nomination, from his Gua Musang division. The Kelantan prince is again the sole challenger for the No 1 post.Anyone wishing to contest the president's post must obtain nominations from at least 30 per cent of the 191 divisions (amounting today to 58 nominations). Challengers for the deputy presidency require 20 per cent (38 nominations), while 10 per cent (19) are needed for an elected vice-president's post, and five per cent (10) for a seat on the supreme council.Over the years, the now 20-year-old quota regulation has been a hothouse for the culture of money politics, a malaise Umno has failed to address until now. This is the main reason why party leaders are calling for its abolition.