Umno’s Supreme Council announced that party elections to pick top party leaders planned for next year will be put on hold until after Malaysia holds its general election, sparking speculation that the Abdullah-Mahathir spat has taken a toll on Umno.
The official reasons for putting off the Umno party elections were, first, to prevent internal politicking from jeopardising Umno's showing at national polls as party elections are often highly divisive affairs; and second, to give full attention to the country’s development. Supreme council members quote party president Abdullah as wanting to make sure the implementation of the Ninth Malaysia Plan would not be disturbed. They note that success in implementing the plan will help Umno win an equally large victory in the general election.
The Umno party polls were slated to be held in September 2007, while the general election is not due until March 2009. The postponement of party polls has sparked speculation that Malaysia could be headed for a snap election, perhaps as early as next year. And leader of the opposition in Parliament, Lim Kit Siang, believes that under-pressure Abdullah may call an early general election to avoid a difficult internal leadership challenge.
Party polls have been postponed twice before. They were held after the general election in 1999 and 2003. At that time, Umno was struggling to reunite after former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked his then-deputy Anwar Ibrahim. “I suppose the message we are getting right now is that the powers-that-be see a problem within party ranks,” Umno Youth executive committee member Mukhriz Mahathir told The Straits Times. He said he, too, was not confident that the party could pull off an impressive win in the general election if it was to be held now. Opposition leader Lim said the postponement was a sign of the prime minister's weak position – a “reflection of weakness rather than strength”.
Abdullah has been locked in a bitter battle with his predecessor Mahathir for many months, with no sign of a truce. The battle has raised fears of divisions within Umno. If party polls are held next year, they would allow the former premier to play a role in the politicking and campaigning. Intensive campaigning could open the door for the former premier to support a challenger to Abdullah and candidates against supporters of Abdullah .
Meanwhile, it will not be surprising if putting off the party polls provides ammunition to Mahathir. He could accuse Abdullah of attempting to hold on to his position without putting it to a test since Abdullah was appointed to the top post by his predecessor without a contest.
The postponement of the party elections was not unexpected. There is strong precedent for it as the last two Umno elections were similarly postponed. Umno polls are very important events because party leaders, by tradition, are also leaders of the government. Some say that postponing the party polls would allow Abdullah – who had come under attack from predecessor Mahathir– time to consolidate and strengthen his hand.
Meanwhile, the Mahathir challenge has again come back to haunt Abdullah with the complaint of dirty tricks in the lead-up to the division elections held on 9 September in Kubang Pasu. Five Umno members filed complaints over division polls in which Mahathir suffered a shock loss. Two Umno members yesterday claimed they had been offered bribes to not vote for Mahathir. They also alleged that outsiders had interfered in the campaigning and that certain quarters had threatened them not to complain about any corruption.
Mahathir had earlier blamed his defeat on unfair campaigning, and alleged that votes had been bought to ensure that he lost. Days after the divisional delegates’ meeting on 9 September, Mahathir, who failed in his bid to be a delegate to the Umno general assembly, had alleged in the media that delegates were bribed and that government machinery was used to ensure he would lose.
Aminuddin, one of the five who had submitted their complaint, said he knew of voters who had been given RM200 (S$86) to refrain from voting for Mahathir. They also mentioned that there was an undue amount of campaigning by the party's top leaders. The formal complaints mean that the Umno leadership can no longer brush aside Mahathir's allegations. How this would develop added another uncertainty into Umno politics and hence an added reason for postponing the party polls.
Umno to hold party elections after GE (The Straits Times, 29 September 2006)
Early elections for M'sia? (Today/AFP, 30 September 2006)
No surprise in putting off polls (The Star, 30 September 2006)
Umno polls delayed to keep focus on 9MP (New Straits Times, 30 September 2006)
Don’t speculate on polls, says Najib (New Straits Times, 30 September 2006)
Umno polls delay raises rumours of early general election (The Straits Times, 30 September 2006)
Kedah Umno members claim anti-Mahathir bribes (The Straits Times, 30 September 2006)
Complaint of dirty tricks in Kubang Pasu (The Star, 30 September 2006)