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New faces vie for top UMNO positions
Publication Date : 23-09-2013
The emergence of forces in Malaysia aligned with former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad to contest some of the United Malays National Organisation's (UMNO) top posts in the upcoming elections is not all bad for the party. The new faces show that UMNO grassroots members welcome change, say analysts.
Following the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional's worst electoral performance in May, some grassroots members in UMNO, the dominant party of BN, are backing new challengers to shake up the party in its closely watched elections on October 12 and 19.
Some of these challengers are aligned with Mahathir, who still wields influence in the party, despite having retired in 2003.
Dr Shamsul Adabi Mamat, a political analyst at National University of Malaysia in Bangi, said grassroots members are not pressuring Prime Minister Najib Razak, the party president, to step down.
Indeed, Najib and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin were unchallenged in last Saturday's nominations.
Instead, these members believe that some degree of Mahathir- style politics, which is more conservative and prioritises Malays-first policies, will strengthen UMNO.
Najib is known to be more liberal and open to reforms.
"They see the Mahathir days as a benchmark for Malays' strength in the country," Shamsul told The Straits Times on Sunday.
Asri Salleh, a political analyst at the Universiti Teknologi Mara in Terengganu, said, however, that this may still throw Najib's position into some uncertainty, as grassroots members are split on whether Mahathir's legacy should return more strongly.
"Najib and Mahathir have different leadership styles and the UMNO grassroots members know it," he said. "Whom they vote in as supreme council members will determine if a shift of balance is taking shape."
Over the years, UMNO has struggled with the lack of young leaders, as it is difficult to rise up the ranks when the old guard's positions are intact, say observers.
But UMNO's new electoral system has encouraged new challengers to the leadership, as it opens up voting to nearly 147,000 regional division members for the first time ever, compared with just 2,500 delegates in the past.
Thus, apart from the party presidency and deputy presidency, all other top posts are contested.
Six are vying for three vice-presidential posts, another five for youth chief and three for women's chief, suggesting that Najib's men will face considerable pressure in the elections.
Leading the race is Mukhriz Mahathir, the youngest son of Mahathir. Mukhriz is seen as a strong contender for one of the vice-presidential posts.
Three days before Mukhriz announced that he would enter the race, Mahathir wrote a scathing piece in Utusan Malaysia on UMNO's lack of new blood, suggesting that some of the current leaders have to go.
"UMNO is ailing and will die if it does not give chance to the younger generation to rejuvenate the party."
Given his father's endorsement, analysts say, Mukhriz, whose campaign slogan is "Berani Berubah" or "Dare to change", may just edge out Hishammuddin Hussein, an incumbent and cousin of Najib.
The call for change is being echoed by some of the contenders, including Ahkramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi, son of former Kedah Menteri Besar Sanusi Junid, a Mahathir ally.
He said he was contesting the youth chief post as he felt UMNO Youth was no longer living up to its reputation as a pressure group to fight for Malay rights.
Yesterday, Utusan Malaysia, a pro-UMNO newspaper, warned that too stiff a competition may cause UMNO to split.
"The political enemies of UMNO will be smiling broadly because UMNO members are targeting each other instead of focusing on the 14th general election," said Zulkiflee Bakar, a columnist of the paper.