Thursday, March 26, 2009

Abdullah pans Umno

Abdullah pans Umno
26 Mar, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's outgoing premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Thursday issued a damning indictment of the ruling party, saying it was contaminated by greed, complacency and internal rivalries.

In his last speech to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) before handing over as party leader to his deputy Najib Razak, Abdullah lamented the decay that has set in after a half-century in power.

"We were intoxicated by our own achievements and we became complacent. We believed that we had become all-powerful. We have put our own positions within the party first," he told delegates at its annual meeting.

Abdullah said that elections a year ago, which handed the opposition control of a third of parliamentary seats in an unprecedented result that effectively ended his career, were a sign that "UMNO's glory has dimmed".

"Materialism has seeped into the party, making a number of party members greedy and avaricious," he said.

"The path that we choose will determine whether we continue to remain relevant or whether we are reduced to a forgotten footnote in the pages of history."

The 66-year-old drifted through a lacklustre term in power after taking over from veteran premier Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia for more than two decades and publicly undermined his successor after the 2003 handover.

Abdullah was punished at the ballot box for failing to implement reforms he had promised, including overhauling the police force and tackling corruption which is endemic in UMNO and Malaysian society.

However, he won some measure of praise for giving more space to free expression after the repressive Mahathir years, and on Thursday he warned the party not to resort to a hardline approach.

"If we revert to the old path I believe we are choosing the wrong path, one that will take us to regression and decay. It is a path that I fear will hasten our demise," he said.

Najib has promised a radical overhaul of UMNO, but commentators say his political baggage - including low popularity ratings and unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and links to a sensational murder - will weaken his position.

Najib has appealed to party members, who are voting this week to fill a range of key posts, to install a strong new leadership team to help him effect the turnaround.

There was an upset late Wednesday when Abdullah's son-in-law, 33-year-old Khairy Jamaluddin, seized the position of chief of UMNO's youth wing - a nurturing ground for future leaders.

Pundits had expected him to lose, saying he was seen as having too much influence over Abdullah and partly to blame for the disastrous polls, and his prospects were further damaged when he was rapped over vote-buying.

But in a shock result he won by a narrow margin, edging out other candidates including Mahathir's son, 44-year-old businessman Mukhriz Mahathir.

In another high-profile contest, former cabinet minister and political veteran Rafidah Aziz was knocked out as leader of UMNO's women's wing, in favour of her deputy Shahrizat Jalil.

Shahrizat is also seen as close to Abdullah, potentially creating problems for Najib who inherits a party leadership packed with allies of his predecessor who is being forced out reluctantly.

"Khairy's win was an upset," said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

"It has disrupted the power balance within Najib's team. He definitely wanted people from his own faction."

Najib, the son of a former prime minister and the nephew of another, was Thursday formally declared president of UMNO in a handover that by party tradition was uncontested.

No date has been set for the formal transition of power, but the king is expected to swear Najib in as the nation's next leader on April 3.

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