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