Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pak Lah"s future may be out of his hands

Pak Lah"s future may be out of his hands


SEPT 11 If Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi can snare enough nominations to snuff out any opposition and return as Umno president while being manacled to a faltering Malaysian economy and shadowed by questions over his fitness for the top job, it would be a minor miracle.

Consider these facts:

- His approval rating has tanked, from slightly over 50 per cent just before the general election to 43 per cent today. His tentative handling of the Datuk Ahmad Ismail episode, which allowed reckless comments by a political bit player to put the country on a security alert, is being assessed as a sign of a weak leader, short on confidence and support within his own party.

- The imminent return of his nemesis, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to Umno and the expected move by the former prime minister to campaign feverishly for Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah as the new president of the ruling party will put severe pressure on what only a month ago was a free pass to the party elections in December.

- The absence of a cohesive game plan to contain Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the Pakatan Rakyat is being tossed around by his critics in the Cabinet and party as a apocalyptic sign that Abdullah's two-year transition plan could lead them to political oblivion.

- More important than all the above reasons, the inability of the Abdullah administration to grease the political patronage wheels of Umno quick enough could lead powerful division chiefs to support the party president's political foes. Party warlords from across the country have sent word that the promises of contracts and projects for their constituencies have remained just that, promises. In some cases, letters of award have been deliberately withheld by senior Finance Ministry officials, flexing their administrative muscles with the full knowledge that the Finance Minister is too weak or distracted to take action against them. The equation is very simple for these division chiefs if Abdullah cannot deliver largesse to them, then he does not deserve their support.

- The Abdullah-Datuk Seri Najib Razak tag team is coming under some pressure, mainly from the Deputy Prime Minister's supporters who wonder if the PM's unpopularity will be a drag on Najib too. Some of them want Najib to be made acting PM soon while less ambitious ones just want Abdullah to do something.

Against this backdrop, Abdullah's loyalists and supporters concede that the three weeks run-up to the divisional elections in October could be much tougher than anticipated. They acknowledge that the doubts about him are percolating like never before, with critics assailing him for his body language right down to his manner of speaking.

They still maintain that the PM will garner sufficient nominations from the 191 divisions to contest the party president's position but for the first time are open to the possibility that Ku Li could obtain the 58 nominations he needs to challenge for the top post. Their confidence is based on the belief that he still can use the instruments of incumbency to hold the line. But position takes anyone only so far. Influence is achieved by results and the ability to exercise raw power. Abdullah has not been able to demonstrate either consistently during his time in office as the PM.

That is why Ahmad was willing to mock him publicly, knowing full well that Abdullah alone would not punish him. That is why some Umno division chiefs are keeping their options open on whether to give their nomination to the PM.

Yes, this is a crucial three weeks for Abdullah. Much of his political fortunes hinges on Najib's commitment to the transition plan and whether the senior members of the party, including the menteris besar, still believe that a smoother transfer of power is a better option than an all out contest. It is pretty much out of his hands.

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