Monday, April 7, 2008

A prince returns to politics

The Asian Pacific Post Fri, March 28 2008

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a prince from the Malaysian northeastern state of Kelantan has openly declared that he would challenge Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in the Umno party elections — for the second time.

“The party Constitution allows anyone to contest. This is democracy, otherwise we may as well have a president for life who will hold power forever,” he told reporters in his Gua Musang constituency in Kelantan.

He said that if he had enough support, he would join the contest for the Umno presidency. Umno is the dominant party in the ruling coalition known as Barisan Nasional.

But the big question remains: Can the veteran politician marshal enough support?

He needs at least 30 per cent of the 191 divisions, or 58 of them, to nominate him.

He is hoping to tap the groundswell of anger targeted at Abdullah over the Barisan Nasional losses in the March 8 general election.

“Haven’t Umno members realized we’ve lost five states? Are they still sleeping?” he asked.

The Kelantan prince’s challenge adds to the troubled fronts the PM faces as he struggles to maintain cohesion within the embattled coalition. Already, there is much talk of defections by dissatisfied BN MPs to the opposition.

Although the 71-year-old former finance minister, who is often seen as prime minister-in-waiting during crises, has not had a significant power base since the height of his power two decades ago, he does command some loyalty.

The Tengku Razaleigh camp is said to be making overtures to Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has openly called on the Prime Minister to resign.

But an aide to Mukhriz said that while they respected Tengku Razaleigh’s boldness, they had decided to stay out of the fray for the moment.

Political sources told the Straits Times Tengku Razaleigh could have the support of more than 10 divisions at this time, and his clear declaration of interest may turn quiet support into open backing.

For sure, his own Gua Musang division, which also nominated him to challenge the Prime Minister in 2004, will back him. It was the only one to do so then.

Right now, it remains a wait-and-see game, but things could become clearer as the grassroots levels of Umno begin their meetings next month.

There is now some speculation that Umno may try to postpone its internal polls, expected to be held this year. Its constitution allows a postponement of up to 18 months from the time the polls were scheduled to have taken place last November — which means they can be held as late as April next year.

Even if there is a contest, Tengku Razaleigh will face major obstacles.

For one, Umno does not have a successful history of challenging leadership and breaking ranks.

Tengku Razaleigh has also been out of the fray for 20 years, during which time powerful personalities have built up their bases in the party.

He challenged Dr. Mahathir in 1987 and lost by just 43 votes. He left to form the now-defunct opposition party Semangat 46, but rejoined Umno in 1996. He has since then taken on a statesman-like role and kept a low profile.

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