Friday, March 27, 2009

Win by Abdullah's son-in-law shows shift in balance of power from Mahathir's family

Win by Abdullah's son-in-law shows shift in balance of power from Mahathir's family
Written by Baradan Kuppusamy of South China Morning Post
Friday, 27 March 2009 11:04

He was once the most disparaged young man in Malaysia. But today, 33-year-old Khairy Jamaluddin, son-in-law of outgoing Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, is being touted as a future leader after his stunning victory in the race to take the reins of the Umno party's powerful youth wing on Wednesday.

Mr Khairy defeated both Mukhriz Mahathir - the son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad - and a third contender, powerful former chief minister Mohamad Khir Toyo. The race between Mr Khairy and Mr Mukhriz had been closely watched as an indicator of the shifting power balance between the two feuding families.

Mr Khairy's victory has elevated him to national attention, and he is expected to be made a cabinet minister next month.

"He is the new rising star to watch in Malaysian politics," said Denison Jayasooria, a political scientist with the National University of Malaysia. "He is clearly prime minister material and could be one 20 years down the line."

The victory is all the more sweet for Mr Khairy and his father-in-law because of the strong public backing that Mr Mukhriz had enjoyed from his father.

"The delegates have given me a new lease of life," Mr Khairy said yesterday. "Emotions were running high during the campaign, [but] now that the election is over, my priority is to heal the wounds."

The son of a Malaysian diplomat who lived and studied in the Middle East and Europe, Mr Khairy graduated from Oxford University and returned to Malaysia in 1999 to enter politics as a member of the Umno youth wing. In 2001, his ambitions received a big boost when he married Mr Abdullah's only daughter, Nori. They now have two sons.

Mr Abdullah took Mr Khairy under his wing, appointing him to various posts before engineering his elevation to the position of deputy Umno youth leader in 2005. Since then, Mr Khairy has come under near-constant attack, described by Dr Mahathir and others as the Machiavellian power behind the Abdullah throne.

"He was young, tall, blue blooded, dashing and articulate - and also took to power easily, like a birthright," said Hassan Ibrahim, a veteran Umno member. "Naturally he generated envy and hatred."

Last year's elections
in which the Umno-led National Front coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the national parliament and lost power in five states were a low point for both Mr Khairy and Mr Abdullah.

"Khairy was blamed by anti-Abdullah factions in Umno for making all the wrong decisions that led to the disaster at the polls," said Ramon Navaratnam, director of the Centre of Public Policy Studies, an independent think-tank. "The knives were out... especially for Khairy."

By December, Mr Abdullah had announced his retirement — leaving Mr Khairy isolated. "His friends urged Khairy to step back, take a break and let the storm blow over, but instead Khairy took the bull by the horns," Dr Navaratnam said.

He re-engineered himself as a champion of Malay rights and a defender of Umno, and took the lead in various political battles, finally earning kudos from some Umno members. That, coupled with the tacit support of deputy prime minister Najib Razak, paid off on Wednesday. The very delegates who had once jeered him now see him as a future leader.

"He is definitely a man to watch under any circumstances," Dr Denison said. "The challenge now is how he manages his victory, whether he can consolidate and lay down firm roots in Umno and the country." — South China Morning Post

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