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In Malaysia, the general assembly election of the dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO), held every three years, has long been seen as the country's real election. But this year, through a controversial nominations process, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi clinched the party presidency two months before the election had even taken place. At the same time, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, secured the party's deputy presidency. And the top leaders of the party's Youth, Wanita (Women's) and Puteri (Daughter's) wings were also confirmed. Thus, when finally the 55th UMNO general assembly was held during 23-25 September, only the party's three vice-presidencies and 25 of its Supreme Council seats remained open to contestation.
The aim of limiting competitiveness in this way was not, it seems, to advantage incumbents and their favourites. Rather, it was to discourage 'money politics', the nefarious practice whereby aspirants bid for the votes of assembly delegates. But the nominations process may have produced the reverse effect. With so many positions confirmed beforehand, the elections appeared not to be taken seriously by the delegates-except as a chance for some quick largesse.
As the date of the general assembly neared, Abdullah observed party traditions by refusing to name his preferences for the party vice-presidencies. But in having so often stressed the need for rural development, he was seen to favour the incumbent first vice-president, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yasin, Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry. Further, with Abdullah highlighting party loyalty and commitments, he seemed to favour the incumbent second vice-president, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib. And Abdullah's seeking to attract younger cohorts to UMNO was interpreted as his favouring the chief minister of Malacca, Datuk Mohd Ali Rustam, president of a grassroots youth movement.
The day before the general assembly began, UMNO's wing organisations held separate elections for their executive councils. The UMNO Youth's proceedings, however, seemed not to bode well for Abdullah. In this election, the council's topmost post was won by Mahathir's youngest son, Mukhriz. Tun Dr Mahathir, then, sitting next day in the assembly's front row as a distinguished visitor opposite the dais, received his son ceremoniously and was given a standing ovation. By contrast, Abdullah's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, who had earlier gained the deputy Youth position through the nominations process, was roundly booed, evidently for having risen too speedily through family prominence. And Khairy's attempt to deflect the opprobrium by echoing denunciations of the former deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, as a traitor to the party, gained him little respite.
In finally opening the UMNO general assembly, Abdullah used his presidential address to refine his notion of Islam hadhari, 'civilisational Islam', geared mostly to deepening Malay faith in Islam and science. But delegates appeared more taken with venomous text messaging, supplanting the poison pen letters of yore. Messages swirled throughout the auditorium, its hallways, and side chambers, vilifying various candidates and speculating over outcomes. A lengthy tea break then followed Abdullah's address. At this juncture, the previous night's 'campaigning' resumed, with delegates lobbied intensively by candidates and their agents.
Soon afterward, the voting took place. And the results, reported late that night, were characterised in the local media as 'shocking' and a 'bombshell'. Tan Sri Mohamad Isa Abdul Samad, portrayed as a 'rank outsider', emerged astonishingly as first vice-president. The former chief minister of a small southern state, now a federal minister with a minor portfolio, Isa had seemed to possess a scant base of support. More to Abdullah's liking, perhaps, was Ali Rustam's gaining the second vice-presidency. But this meant that Muhyiddin, seemingly Abdullah's first preference and hailing from the mighty UMNO bastion of Johor, could do no better than the third vice-presidency. Muhammad Taib was defeated outright. So too was Datuk Shahrir Samad, a maverick former minister who, based in one of UMNO's 'poorest' divisions, had hoped to demonstrate through his victory that money politics in UMNO had finally been tamed.
In seeking to counter fast-rising suspicions, Isa contended that he had expected to win because 'during voting time, when my name was called, there was very loud applause'. And he added, 'I do not know about money politics'. Ali Rustam similarly maintained, 'I don't think that any money politics was involved in my election. However, I did attend some gatherings.' But a disappointed Muhyiddin asserted that 'money politics had affected the outcome& "This could be one area that the party has to deal with seriously"'.
In his opening address, Abdullah had asked that the delegates 'repent. In five years from now, we will face the people again& The party will lose terribly if the enormous strength and unity it displayed during the general election [last March] is destroyed because of the party election process'. Thus, in analysing the results of the 55th UMNO assembly election, many observers concluded that the delegates had turned their back on Abdullah in order vigorously to pursue money politics. In their view, Abdullah's attempts to limit competitiveness and discipline the delegates had come to nought, commensurately eroding his standing.
But the 55th UMNO general assembly can be read in another way. With Abdullah regarded now as having consolidated his leadership in unexpectedly short order-evinced by Najib's pledge during an address 'not to stab from behind'-fears of an early challenge and new party split have eased. The delegates, then, did not take this election seriously, regarding the limited slate for which they could vote as merely an 'interim' one. Accordingly, they took what money they could-a sign at this juncture of their confidence in Abdullah's ascendancy. Indeed, a delegate from Kedah 'wondered what the fuss was all about. "Whatever money given helps us recoup some cost. I do not think the leadership should be too worried"'.
WATCHPOINT: The 55th UMNO General Assembly election makes clear that Abdullah Badawi has consolidated his leadership. The next assembly election will be more geared to issues of succession.
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