Abdullah goes on the offensive

PENANG, July 5 — Give him a small group, a microphone and he can charm the room with his genial demeanour, a few jokes and some straight talk.

Over the weekend, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will attempt to use those gifts to try and win the support from all 13 Umno divisions in Penang. His officials have already sent word to the divisions in his home state that he is shooting for nominations from all of them to defend the party president’s position in December. This message will be sent to other states over the next few weeks.

A Cabinet minister told The Malaysian Insider: “Pak Lah is not taking any chances. He is sending out signals that he wants as many nominations as possible. He does not want to scrape through with the minimum number of nominations.’’

Abdullah has also told party officials that he will still go for the Umno president’s position even if another Umno leader receives sufficient nominations to challenge him.

To defend his post as Umno president, Abdullah needs 58 nominations from the 191 divisions. But he is aware that there are moves by his political opponents to spend as much as RM4 million per division to ensure that nominations for the top two post in Umno go to Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin. This strategy is aimed at forcing him to set a specific date for the transfer of power to Najib, and to persuade him not harbour any ideas of staying on in office until 2010.

Umno politicians say that the statutory declaration by P. Balasubramaniam alleging that Najib knew murdered Mongolian model Altantuya Shariibuu and had sexual relations with her has had minimal impact on the Umno rank-and-file, where the DPM is still viewed as the best qualified candidate to take over from Abdullah.

The stunning retraction of the declaration 24 hours later by the private investigator has been well-received by the grassroots but it is different story with the chattering class and some senior members of the ruling party who are utterly confused and disillusioned with the allegations. They believe that there are unanswered questions surrounding the murder case and also blame Abdullah for the sense of drift in Malaysia.

For now, Abdullah’s strategy appears to be to use the powers of incumbency to win support from Umno power brokers. And this includes ensuring that division chiefs in Pakatan Rakyat-held states or those who lost their positions after Election 2008 are looked after.

The Malaysian Insider has learnt that former Perlis Menteri Besar Tan Sri Shahidan Kassim will be appointed chairman of a government-linked as will former Terengganu Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh.

They were forced to give up their positions as MBs after the royal households in both states rejected their appointments. Both of them command the respect of the foot soldiers in Perlis and Terengganu and can play a role in influencing how branches and divisions vote.

Branch meetings and elections are due to begin in mid-July while the divisions will nominate candidates for the top positions in the party in October.

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