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Monday, November 5, 2007

To be seen and heard

Today Online (2/11/2007): The 12th Malaysian general election isn't due until May 2009, but it is widely expected to be held as early as the first quarter of next year. The election for party office-bearers of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the nation's largest political party, will likely take place at next year's assembly, which will be held after the general election.

Next week's Umno assembly, therefore, might be the last before the next national and party polls. Both are of critical importance, but which is the one topmost in the minds of the delegates?

Apparently, the more immediate event. Being almost certainly the last Umno meeting before the general election, the focus will be on consolidating the party and rallying members to a common goal.

"I have no doubt that the focus will be on the general election," said assemblyman Ramzi Abdul Rahman.

The next general election will be the second led by party president and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

A strong win by ruling party Umno and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will silence critics who attribute the BN's historic showing in 2004 — its strongest to date — to the euphoria over Mr Abdullah, who was a new leader then.

The coming general election will also be significant for providing Umno with its best chance to date of wresting Kelantan, the sole opposition-held state.

With the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) now having just a one-seat advantage over Umno in the Kelantan state assembly, the balance of power between the two parties has never been closer.

"I'm sure the debates will centre on strengthening the party and the need to figure out the best general election candidate line-up for Umno," said Mr Zambry Abdul Kadir, an Umno state division chief.

Making a good impression at the assembly would be important to those eager to be selected as general election candidates, which would in turn position them to bid for party posts in the subsequent Umno elections.

Being dropped or omitted from the next general election line-up, on the other hand, could adversely affect their chances of holding on to or bidding for a party post.

For these reasons, some consider the next party elections "the real" elections for aspiring Umno members. One of the three vice-presidential positions is vacant. There's also talk of possible changes in Umno's women and youth wings.

With such high stakes, the subject of party posts will not be far from the minds of delegates at the assembly. As the biggest gathering of its members, it is the best platform to network, garner support and make one's views heard.

Campaigning might not be carried out openly, but candidates and their campaign machinery would not want to miss the opportunity for a head start. Every move from shaking hands, idle chatter and even hosting dinners would be construed as canvassing for support.

There are suspicions that some aspirants may have begun campaigning overtly — sometimes referred to as "testing the waters".

"Some members now appear to be talking more about the party elections instead," said state division head Hisham Abdul Majid.

Whether it is serious, the point is that this assembly should be about gearing up Umno for the general election, he said.

But any attempt to hijack next week's assembly as a platform to campaign for party elections will have a limited impact at best.

"Yes, the party election is next year, so it will definitely be an important backdrop in the upcoming assembly," said Prof Shamsul Amri Baharuddin of the National University of Malaysia.

"However, a different set of delegates will vote in the party election, so 'working the ground' now can only have a marginal effect," he added.

This means aspiring candidates may be campaigning with the wrong voters now, as next year's assembly may see different delegates sent by the divisions.

"Umno members know who the non-performers are, so there's no use play-acting at this general assembly," said Mr Alwi Che' Ahmad, a state information chief.

With this year's haj season around the corner, one naughty joke making the rounds is that some aspiring candidates within Umno have deferred their plans for pilgrimage due to fears of a possible early general election.

"My advice to them is to go and perform their haj, which should be more important," Mr Alwi said.

It is inevitable, he adds, that members who have performed and contributed a lot to Umno and the Malays will be selected as candidates. — The New Straits Times


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