Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Malaysian political dynasties battle for key post

Malaysian political dynasties battle for key post
Mar 25, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - The scions of Malaysia's top two political families faced off Wednesday as the party which has ruled the nation for more than 50 years reshuffles its leadership after a disaster at the polls.

The son-in-law of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is vying with the son of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad, as well as a third candidate, to become youth leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

The heated contest spilled over into a show of force Wednesday at the party's annual meeting before delegates cast their votes, with hundreds of supporters of the rival candidates staging an impromptu rally.

Mostly supporters of Abdullah's son Khairy Jamaluddin, and the third candidate Khir Toyo, they brought proceedings at the party's annual congress to a standstill as they squared off to chant and sing songs at each other.

Political commentators say that Khairy has likely lost his lead in the race after his representatives were rapped for vote-buying, and that either Khir Toyo or Mahathir's son Mukhriz are likely to be victorious.

UMNO's youth wing is a nurturing ground for future leaders, and the results due to be announced late Wednesday will be seen as determining which of the clans will control Malaysia's future.

The two patriarchs have had a very public falling-out since the 2003 leadership handover, and Mahathir's constant sniping after disastrous elections a year ago helped force Abdullah to agree to quit.

On Thursday he is to stand down as party president in favour of his deputy Najib Razak, who will be formally sworn into power in coming days.

Also up for grabs at the conference, which concludes Saturday, are the posts of head of the party's women's wing, three vice-presidencies and 25 seats on UMNO's policy-making supreme council.

The UMNO-led coalition, which has run Malaysia since independence in 1957, suffered its worst-ever setback in elections one year ago, when the opposition gained control of one-third of the seats in parliament.

Abdullah had been criticised as weak and ineffective, but many Malaysians believe a major factor in his downfall was the role of his 33-year-old son-in-law.

The Oxford-educated Khairy was an aide to Abdullah before marrying the boss's daughter in 2001, sending him on a meteoric rise that landed him the deputy youth chief position in 2004.

Eloquent and expensively dressed, Khairy's big ambitions and alleged influence with his father-in-law have seen him vilified on political websites.

Mahathir has accused Abdullah of pandering to the demands of Khairy, whom he said was influencing government policy, contracts and appointments - charges he denies.

'I've gotten used to it. As far as I'm concerned, nobody has substantiated any of this innuendo with any facts or evidence,' Khairy told AFP in an interview last year.

Mukhriz Mahathir, a 44-year-old businessman, wants to be seen as his own man but remains under the colossal shadow of his father, whose controversial two-decade rule brought prosperity to Malaysia.

He said Wednesday he was 'cautiously optimistic' of a victory.

'My chances are good. Since it is a three-cornered fight, I can win by a slim majority,' Mukhriz said.

Although Najib has declined to throw his support behind any candidate, some delegates said he was believed to favour Mukhriz.

'It is apparent that the deputy president is supportive of Mukhriz and to many this appears like a blessing for the job,' said one delegate, Rashiddin Haji Ahmad.

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