JOHOR BARU, May 5 — Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah made his first foray into the Umno bastion of Johor yesterday to win support for his presidency bid — and lost his legendary cool. The veteran Umno man was disturbed with reports that some division and branch leaders had been persuaded not to attend a meeting in Batu Pahat to discuss Election 2008.
He was also troubled with the strong presence of plainclothes policemen, including Special Branch personnel, and declared that he was being treated as if he were a communist, thumping the podium in the process.
Ku Li, who is offering himself as a candidate for the party president’s position, pointed out that he had been an Umno member for more than four decades, and what he was doing was merely to push for the democratisation of the party.
Some 200 party members turned up to hear his take on the consequences of Umno and Barisan Nasional losing four more states to Pakatan Rakyat and seeing their two-third majority in Parliament slashed down to a simple majority.
But missing from the meeting were several Batu Pahat strongmen including MP Puad Zarkashi. His absence was all the more surprising since he has been a trenchant critic of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and a key feature at other sessions to conduct a post-mortem on the election.
After the afternoon session in Batu Pahat, Ku Li travelled to Muar for a meeting with a few hundred party members. The visit to Johor is part of his nationwide road show to ferment a groundswell of support among ordinary members of the party.
He knows that most power brokers in Umno – ministers, supreme council members, division chiefs – are unlikely to throw their support behind him in his bid to contest the number one position in the party for a variety of reasons.
Reason No. 1
His entry into the leadership structure of Umno will delay someone else’s rise up the political ladder. As such, division chiefs aligned to Datuk Seri Najib Razak, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin or Datuk Ali Rustam and hoping to hit the jackpot of patronage soon have little reason to nominate him.
Reason No. 2
For all his stature and charisma, Ku Li is not a minister or a menteri besar. In short, he cannot offer much to grassroots leaders who more interested in the gravy train and realpolitik than they are by his vision of making Umno attractive for all Malaysians.
Reason No. 3
The prevailing culture among the power brokers is that contests for senior leadership positions in the party always leads to bitter disputes and a split among members. They prefer a smooth transition of power.
Understanding the sentiment among the power brokers, Ku Li is taking his case for change to the ordinary party member, hoping that the pressure from the ground will translate to the 58 nominations he needs to contest the party president’s position in December.
In Batu Pahat yesterday, he told party members that Umno’s legitimacy and effectiveness in carrying out policies had been impaired greatly by the loss of four more states – Perak, Penang, Kedah and Selangor – to the Opposition. He noted that the defeat of MIC, MCA and Gerakan candidates also had put the Barisan Nasional concept in peril.
He was at pains to tell the audience that he was not challenging the current party leadership, explaining that the mandate of the current Umno leadership was ending. As such anyone in Umno had the right to offer to contest positions in the branch, division, supreme council and more senior echelons of the party.
During the question-and-answer session which followed his speech, he was asked whether Malaysia could be turned from a constitutional monarchy into a republic. Ku Li said that in theory this was possible if such a motion was supported by two-thirds of the MPs in Parliament.
Another party member wondered if Abdullah and Najib can be forced to step down before December. Ku Li noted that the constitution should be the guiding document. The Kelantan prince has said repeatedly that he is not interested in going outside the bounds of the law and democratic contests to force a leadership change. He said that a quiet revolution must happen in Umno for it to regain its old standing.
“Such a revolution is important for party members to go back down to earth and to the basics. We cannot act as elitists as we are a parti kampung. So we must return to our roots,” he said.