Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad suffered a humiliating defeat in his bid to highlight his grievances with the current Abdullah administration in the coming Umno general assembly when he failed to be elected as a delegate for the Kubang Pasu division.
The day before the fateful Kubang Pasu divisional meeting on Saturday (9 September) to vote on the delegates for the Umno general assembly in November, more than 90 per cent of the committee members in the division made an unusual impassioned appeal to Mahathir Mohamad to withdraw from contesting “to save him the embarrassment of losing”. Their reason – it was “not proper” for the former Prime Minister, who was also their chairman for some 30 years before he retired in 2003, to “lower his dignity” by being a “normal” delegate at the assembly.
That same day, members of Malaysia's ruling Umno party called for unity ahead of the bid by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad to run in a party contest seen as a precursor to a clash with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Deputy premier Najib Razak called on party members for a "zero dispute" practice in the party. Umno Supreme Council member Abdullah Mohamad played up fears that opposition parties will take advantage of the tensions between the two, saying, "We have to minimise disputes because normally, if there are disputes, the opposition wins”.
The ruling United Malay National Organisation (Umno) has been fearful that had Mahathir been elected as a delegate, he would use the platform to step-up his attacks on Abdullah, whom he has accused of betrayal, nepotism and unwise policy decisions.
Losing the vote has been a crucial blow to Mahathir since, true to expectations, this rejection by his division members has provided fuel to Umno’s party chiefs to trumpet the fact that Mahathir has no grassroots support in his battle with the Abdullah administration.
Guns all ablazing, numerous Umno members came out to rub-in Mahathir’s wounds of defeat. Party leaders said Mahathir’s failure to be elected as a delegate to attend the Umno general assembly reflected the dwindling support for the former prime minister and signalled the end of the Mahathir era. All out in support of Abdullah, Pahang's chief minister urged party members to leave Mahathir's contributions for the annals of history and focus their full support for Abdullah so that he can bring the country to greater heights. Kubang Pasu division chief explained the result as showing that Mahathir simply did not have support. Minister Nazri Aziz said Mahathir’s loss was the grassroots' way of sending a clear message that no matter how important a person was, no individual was more important than the party. To the party and government leadership, the verdict proves that the grassroots are with Abdullah. This is especially important as the party is scheduled to hold its elections next year.
Analysts said Mahathir’s shock defeat in a grassroots party ballot shows he is finished as a force in Malaysian politics. However, observers warned that although Mahathir suffered a major blow in the vote which bars him from addressing the ruling party's annual assembly, his days as a critic are far from over. Umno watcher Shamsul Amri Baharuddin did not rule Mahathir out as an influential force. "What he has decided politically is not to be a prime minister, but to be a critic," he said. "I don't see Mahathir ending anything, he's just taking another lane."
The nightmare scenario that Abdullah supporters are contemplating now is whether Mahathir might react and lash out with fresh allegations against the incumbent on the fringes of the general assembly. Party elders are concerned that the presence of the former premier in the meeting hall could split the party, especially if he makes fresh allegations against Abdullah. A member of Umno’s powerful Supreme Council said, “He could get so much attention that the main Malay issues – lagging in education, the weak economy, religious challenges – are cast aside”. Guarding against that, Abdullah appeared concilatory, giving his assurance on the sidelines of the Sixth Asia-Europe Summit in Helsinki on Sunday (10 September) that Mahathir will be invited to attend the Umno general assembly in November. But this is not what Mahathir wanted, since Mahathir’s objective for attending as an elected delegate was in order to show that he still has grassroots support as he ratchets up his fight against Abdullah.
Immediately following his humiliating attack, Mahathir escalated his attacks on Umno and Abdullah. He blamed his defeat on bribery by the ruling party members to snub him, and renewed his attacks on Abdullah and his son-in-law, Khairy, repeating the same accusations about nepotism and cronynism. Expectedly, he also repeated his accusations that the Abdullah government has sold out to Singapore in the negotiations over the bridge, water, etc.
After four months of relentless attacks, Mahathir’s goal of toppling Abdullah still seems a long shot, even for the redoubtable statesman. The harsh political reality is that once a person is out of power in Malaysia, he commands little influence. It is increasingly clear that it is near-impossible to fight the well-oiled Umno machinery and to challenge the power of incumbency. After all, it was Mahathir himself who put in place all the defences as Umno president for 22 years to ensure that his position was unassailable.
As Mahathir’s options become fewer and fewer, it is increasingly difficult to see where he will go next, except to ratchet up the verbal attacks, and played the role of a critic. The question on everyone’s minds now is what will this ultimately lead to?
Division chief pleads with Dr M to reconsider (New Straits Times, 8 September 2006)
Umno calls for unity ahead of polls (AFP, 9 September 2006)
Mahathir fails to become a delegate (The Star, 10 September 2006)
Dr M to get assembly invite (The Star, 11 September 2006)
Shahrir says Dr M’s loss signals the end of an era (The Star, 11 September 2006)
Abdullah: Dr M not excluded from assembly (New Straits Times, 11 September 2006)
Mahathir finished? (Today/AFP, 11 September 2006)
How far will grassroots go for Mahathir? (The Straits Times, 9 September 2006)
Call to ‘protect’ Mahathir’s honour (The Straits Times, 9 September 2006)
Defeat for Mahathir at Umno polls (The Straits Times, 10 September 2006)
Mahathir likely to keep fighting (The Straits Times, 10 September 2006)
Move on after Mahathir’s defeat say Umno chiefs (The Straits Times, 11 September 2006)
No end to my attacks, vows Mahathir (The Straits Times, 12 September 2006)
Ex-premier blames his defeat on bribery (The Straits Times, 12 September 2006)