In Malaysia, Umno branches are beginning their annual meetings this week. Earlier Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi announced that he will step down in mid-2010. But will Mr Abdullah’s retirement plan placate grassroot members shocked by the party’s showing in the March general elections? Get the insights in Inside Malaysia this week. I’m Saifulbahri Ismail.
Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, led Umno and Barisan Nasional to an impressive election victory in 2004. He won 198 out of 220 seats in parliament and wrested control of Terengganu from Islamist opposition party, PAS. It was a resounding win. After years of Mahathir’s rule, Malaysians were ready for a change and gave their full support to his successor. But four years later, it was a different story. The Barisan Nasional suffered its biggest loss in the country's electoral history. It failed to get a two-thirds majority vote and lost four states to the opposition. Mr Abdullah was largely blamed for the poor showing. Voters blamed the party for its poor economic performance, racial discrimination, corruption and increased crime. Since then, Mr Abdullah has faced unrelenting pressure to step down. On 10th July, the Prime Minister who is affectionately known as Pak Lah announced that he will resign in 2010, handing over power to his deputy Najib Razak. According to political analyst Dr Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Mr Abdullah’s decision to relinquish his post is an admission that he shares part of the blame for the heavy election losses :
It gives some semblance of legitimacy to Abdullah as well because it shows he demonstrates some sort of guilt or at least willingness to share the blame for the losses for Umno and Barisan Nasional suffered during the previous elections over of course he hasn’t admitted that openly. But the fact that he has announced and agreed not to lead Umno and Barisan into the next general elections, is itself an indirect admission of wanting to share the blame and the sadness that Umno grassroots have been feeling.
The feelings however have been mixed concerning the timetable that Mr Abdullah has set for the transition of power. Some feel that 2010 is too far, and two years could be an eternity in politics. They want Mr Abdullah to step down earlier. But Abdul Rahman Dahlan, Secretary General of Umno’s youth wing feels it’s a reasonable time period :
What is important is that both leaders agreed and are comfortable with the transition plan. And I believe most of the leaders in Umno especially those at the branch level probably think that 2010 is a reasonable time and gives ample time for the deputy prime minister to get ready. Even in this 2 years the prime minister has told us that he will slowly handover official duties to Datuk Seri Najib, which includes official visits, trade missions overseas and international conferences, and as well I believe the United Nations assembly in September.
Even though Mr Abdullah Badawi’s succession plan has been set in motion, his position as well as that of his deputy is not secure. Both must still face challenges from within UMNO in the party elections to be held in December. In addition Deputy Prime Minister Najib’s political future might be in jeopardy over allegations of his involvement in a murder case. Professor Clive Kessler from the University of New South Wales, is one of Australia’s foremost Malaysia watchers :
The decision to try and hold everything in place, to leave all the places in position on the chessboard for another two years has a consequence of saying to people who wants change, there will be people who’ll try desperately to wrest power from Badawi and to force him out, to force him aside. The dilemma facing Najib in him staying loyal and not challenging was other people would challenge Badawi in the elections and do it seriously and might succeed and they will be number one, and Najib would be left contesting the number two position on the Badawi-Najib ticket. Now, the consequence of the decision is to make it even more likely that others will challenge desperately and ruthlessly to force Badawi out and to seize the number one position from him.
One party member who has made know his intention to contest the top post is Kelantan prince, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah. Another possible contender is International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Under UMNO’s Constitution, candidates vying for party President will first need to obtain at least 30 per cent of the nominations from 191 divisions. Political commentator and columnist Zainah Anwar is not optimistic about their chances :
He’s already made that decision so probably there is a sense among the majority of Umno people, like ok let’s just give him this 2 years period for him to deliver and not let’s challenge him. So, I think it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to be able to garner the nominations necessary to mount a successful challenge against him in December.
If you’ve just tuned in, you’re listening to Inside Malaysia on Radio Singapore International. In the programme this week, we examine the implications of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s retirement plan. Mr Abdullah said that he wanted to use the two years before he steps down to implement his reform agenda. These include making changes in major institutions such as the judiciary, anti-corruption agency and the police force. Public confidence in government agencies and public institutions have been eroded. How well will Mr Abdullah be able to finish what he started in 2004? Dr Ahmad Fauzi from Universiti Sains Malaysia with this view :
He has said that he has his reform agenda but then his reform agenda is not new, as per the 2008 general elections. Some of his agenda is said to have been recently initiated were actually pledges made way back in 2004. so, I think basing your decision on having your own reform agenda is quite emotional rather than practical. What if after two years some of the agenda is still not successful? After the people have given him four years. I think it will be better for him politically and also for how his image will be projected to Malaysian future generations, it will better for him to actually make way for a new leader.
Mr Abdullah’s inability to deliver his reform promises was one of the reasons which led to voter dissatisfaction in the last elections. While some observers may not be too convinced of Mr Abdullah’s capacity to push through his reforms, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, Secretary General of Umno’s youth wing is more confident :
Well if you look at it, when you know you’re leaving it’ll be easier to do changes don’t it? Because he doesn’t have to be popular. I believe by leaving in 2010, this two years he can institute these changes and reforms and do not really have to care about political impact as far as his popularity is concern. So, I look at it differently I think these two years is a golden opportunity to push his reform agendas and probably he will be successful given the background of the political climate. He got two years there, and I think the implementation can be done, and I think again, by having two years and definite time to leave gives him the extra leverage to push the reform agenda.
Whether or not Mr Abdullah’s final two years in office will give him the added motivation to make the necessary changes to bring back much needed public and investor confidence in the country remains to be seen. Professor Clive Kessler from the University of New South Wales believes that Mr Abdullah may also use the remaining time to try and reform the party :
The two years have to be used to effect some complete housecleaning, some complete re-organisation of policy and also leadership line-up within the Umno. If they can use the two years to do that then they’ve got a chance to get out of this and go forward. If not, it’s just the decision for a further unraveling of the whole alliance Barisan system of government that have been in place since 1957, and an unraveling of a particular form that it took, the corporatized personalized form that it took under Dr Mahathir rule for 22 years that Abdullah Badawi has been unable to hold together.
The branch meeting beginning this week is the first phase in the party election process, which will conclude with the Umno elections in December. The nominations for party posts will take place when the divisions convene their meetings between 9th Oct and 9th Nov. The clock has started to tick for Mr Abdullah Badawi. He has bought himself two more years to prove his mettle and to leave behind a positive legacy that will be remembered in Malaysian history.
That ends Inside Malaysia this week. I’m Saifulbahri Ismail for Radio Singapore International.