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Sunday April 23, 2006

Crowded race for a hot seat


Umno Youth wonderboy Khairy Jamaluddin is the leading candidate to head the movement a few years down the road. But he may find it a rather crowded race, writes JOCELINE TAN. 

UMNO politician Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin was quite cool about being dropped from the Perlis executive council a fortnight ago. 

Zahidi, once seen as a rising star in Perlis Umno politics, had been expecting the axe to drop. 

It was no secret that Zahidi and Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim had not been seeing eye-to-eye for quite some time now. 

Fame has been a double-edged sword for Khairy although he is the front-runner for the top job.
Apparently, he had been absent from state exco meetings and there were allegations that he was outstation more often than he was in Perlis where he is Beseri assemblyman. 

Zahidi took all this in his stride.  

Instead of moping around, he immediately went on a whirlwind visit to a number of states, from as close by as Penang to as far off as Johor and Sabah, to meet up with local Umno Youth politicians. 

“I have a lot of free time now and I just wanted to say hello and catch up on what’s happening,” the 44-year-old politician known for his distinctive nose, bushy eyebrows and moustache, told many people. 

The official reason for his exclusion from the Perlis exco was that he wanted to focus on his business. 

By the end of last week, it appeared that the business he intended to concentrate on was none other than the business of politics. 

Zahidi has been going to the ground with his intention for the top post.
The popular assumption is that Umno Youth chief Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein Onn is ready to move on to contest the vice-presidency although he has not breathed a word of his future plans. 

It is in this context that Zahidi has begun sending out signals that he is open to the idea of contesting the Umno Youth leadership.  

“If the grassroots want me, I will go in,” he finally admitted. 

Is Zahidi jumping the gun given that the Umno elections are still a good one to two years away? 

According to Umno politicians, it is not all that early for someone who is not holding a big post but wants to go for one. 

If Zahidi does jump in, the race for the top post may be more crowded than expected. 

There is little doubt that Khairy Jamaluddin, now the movement’s No 2, is a top candidate for the job. Others include Youth exco member Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Mohamed Khir Toyo.  

Mukhriz, 41, who won the Youth exco post with the most votes, has not ruled out going for the top post.  

His supporters say he will “go with the ground sentiment”. 

A successful businessman, Mukhriz is known for his involvement in Ansara, the Mara junior science college alumni, and Peace Malaysia. His social work in these NGOs has lent him a certain moral credibility that has served him well in his politics. 

Mukhriz’s chief appeal is his family name and his own personal charm, humility and intellect. He has yet to really capture the Malay political imagination the way that Khairy and Khir have. 

Khir, on the other hand, has kept his plans close to his chest. Besides, he has his plate full, grappling with an endless array of issues and problems in Selangor. 

Khir is a man with options since doing well in the last party polls.
“It's going to be status quo for Datuk Seri Khir. He is happy where he is and he wants to concentrate on his work in Selangor,” said Faisal Abdullah, a key loyalist and Selangor Umno Youth deputy chief. 

But Khir, 41, has also been visiting one state after another the last couple of months, ostensibly to bid farewell to members of the Malaysian Youth Council of which he is the out-going president. 

During such visits, he also touches base with local Umno politicians, meeting them over lunch or dinner.  

When Khir stopped by in Perlis, Shahidan attended the gathering and announced in his welcome speech that, “we will support you if you decide to contest for the vice-president post”. 

There was loud applause but when it came to Khir’s turn to speak, he deftly sidestepped Shahidan's words of encouragement. 

Said Faisal: “If he says he is interested, people will start talking. If he says he is not interested, people will still talk, so better not to say anything.” 

But Khir, who emerged No 1 in the race for the 25-seat supreme council is a man with options – he can choose to defend his supreme council seat, go for the Youth chief post or make a bid for the vice-presidency.  

For a number of years, Khir was largely regarded as a young upstart who had, by a stroke of luck, landed up as Mentri Besar. But all that changed when he topped the supreme council race and he is taken much more seriously in the party today. 

Khairy, the leading candidate at this point, has cut a blazing trail through Umno politics.  

“He is like Mawi, a phenomenon. Everybody knows of him,” said Kedah politician Guntor Tobeng. 

A simplistic way of looking at his meteoric rise is to attribute it to his being the son-in-law of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.  

But connections are only one part of it albeit a key part.  

Mukhriz, known for his personal charm and humility, enjoys credibility.
His advance has not been without hard work, braininess, ambition and ability on his own part.  

He also has that elusive X-factor and his reality football show has made him even more of a household name than ever. It has taken him to a new level of celebrity, namely, among the X-generation and sports-loving segment of society. 

Khairy, 30, is interesting and contemporary and he makes news, be it in politics, football or business. 

People talk endlessly about him, never mind that the bulk of them have never even met him or that not everything they hear about him is factual. 

As one Umno official put it: “Atas kubur pun orang cakap kat dia” (people discuss him even at funerals). 

Unfortunately, not everything said about him is positive or flattering. 

Fame, as they say, is a double-edged sword.  

There is also a great deal of envy and resentment surrounding Khairy, something that Zahidi is probably planning to ride on. 

Khairy's other drawback is that he is not, as they say in Umno politics, tested, having won his deputy Youth chief post without a contest in 2004.  

He should have taken the fire-walk then because the coals have grown so much hotter since. 

It is still a long road from now till the Umno polls but the prevailing sentiment in the movement is that they want to see a free contest for the Umno Youth leadership.  

“I keep hearing that people wouldn’t dare to challenge KJ because he is the PM’s son-in-law. If we think that people should not go against someone's daughter or son, that will be the ruin of Umno,” said a Kedah assemblyman rather dramatically. 

But said Federal Territory Umno Youth head Datuk Norza Zakaria: “The Youth leadership has its own set of criteria and traditions. The person has to be quite special.” 

Besides, Norza added, the Umno polls are likely to take place only after the general election. 

“Whether people stay put or get moved about in the general election is going to make a lot of difference in the Umno elections,” he said. 

For instance, Mukhriz may make his debut in a Kedah seat, Khir may move on to other pastures, Khairy may be made a candidate and get a government post and Zahidi may be dropped.  

It's anybody's guess for now. 

A week is a long time in politics, what more from now till the next general election.  

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