Malaysia's covert power struggle

Behind Mahathir-vs-Abdullah there is Najib-vs-Khairy

By Oon Yeoh* (From of July 13, 2006)

THE gripping drama that is the spat between Malaysia's former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his successor, Mr Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has seen a respite for the past week. That's because both men were on holiday: Dr Mahathir in Europe and Mr Abdullah in Australia.
Just before the lull, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Nazri Aziz had called upon Dr Mahathir to "be a man" and resign from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), instead of criticising the government from within Umno.
Shortly after that, Mr Tajudin Ramli, a tycoon long associated with Dr Mahathir and former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, came out with a stunning claim: That the privatisation of Malaysia Airlines was orchestrated by Dr Mahathir and Mr Daim to help Bank Negara, the central bank, overcome billions of ringgit of losses due to currency speculation.
No one expects Dr Mahathir to take all this lying down. He will return from his holiday with guns blazing and the present lull is simply the calm before the storm. Although no one seriously expected him to ride off into the sunset after he retired, nobody expected him to become the government's chief critic.
It's obvious now that Dr Mahathir's objective is to make sure Mr Abdullah is a one-term Prime Minister. He has made it clear that he prefers Mr Abdullah's deputy, Mr Najib Razak.
With no power within the government or the party, it seems the only way Dr Mahathir can achieve this goal is to convince Mr Najib to challenge Mr Abdullah in the next Umno election.
Mr Najib is the obvious beneficiary if Mr Abdullah steps down after one term. Still in his early 50s, Mr Najib could have three (or possibly four) terms as Prime Minister if this happens.
For now, he's playing it cool and has been declaring his full allegiance to Mr Abdullah.
Common sense would dictate that he remains patient and "allow" Mr Abdullah two full terms after which he would naturally take over. But there are two factors that may complicate things. One is the temptation to become premier sooner rather than later. The other is Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, Umno Youth deputy chief and Mr Abdullah's ambitious son-in-law.
If Mr Abdullah serves two full terms, that means seven more years before Mr Najib takes over for three terms (15 years). Current Umno Youth Chief Hishamuddin Hussein, seen to be the No 3 in waiting, would then take over from Mr Najib to serve two terms (10 years).
This would mean that Mr Khairy would have to wait 32 years to take the reins, unimaginable for the impatient 31-year-old who has set his sights on becoming Malaysia's youngest Prime Minister.
Mr Khairy knows his political career will be cut short if Mr Abdullah's tenure is reduced to one term. Mr Khairy needs Mr Abdullah to be in power for at least another term so he can consolidate his growing influence and power in Umno.
One way or another, Mr Khairy needs to prevent Mr Najib from challenging Mr Abdullah. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim might just be his wild card. Mr Anwar has said he has no interest in rejoining Umno (not that he's been offered that ... yet).
Still, everyone knows that he, as much as Mr Khairy, sees his destiny as Prime Minister of Malaysia. There is no practical way for that to happen unless Mr Anwar rejoins Umno.
If Mr Najib and his supporters ever appear too restless, Mr Abdullah, with Mr Khairy's help, could easily engineer Mr Anwar's return to Umno with the understanding he would not challenge Mr Abdullah, but is free to challenge anyone else (read: Mr Najib).
Mr Anwar could then succeed Mr Abdullah for two terms, after which Mr Khairy would take the helm. Mr Khairy would by then be only 48, still qualifying him to be Malaysia's youngest premier ever.
Leaders from all the opposition parties have been remarkably quiet throughout this saga, adopting the principle that when your rivals are battling each other, you just sit back and watch the fireworks.
Mr Abdullah's decision to remain silent throughout is seen by some as complacency, which could well be the case but who can blame him? He's not just the Prime Minister, but also the Finance Minister and the Home Minister. He also has the full support of the Cabinet and the local media.
It's hard to picture Dr Mahathir ever losing a battle. After all, he's won so many. But this time, it could well be that the seasoned politician has grossly miscalculated the situation. He is, ironically, the victim of his own success, for it was Dr Mahathir who concentrated all the levers of power in the hands of the executive.

Oon Yeoh is a writer and commentator based in Kuala Lumpur.

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