ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: PETALING JAYA: The upcoming Umno polls will see the status quo maintained for Umno president and Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, but the battles for the three vice-presidency roles, Wanita and Umno Youth are hotting up.
The most furious of these fights is expected to be the one for vice-president.
The roles are currently occupied by firebrand Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Zahid Hamidi, former keris-waving Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin who seems to have mellowed in his later years, and Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal from Semporna, Sabah.
The challengers to these thrones are Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, who many say rides on his still-powerful father's fame; former Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar Tan Sri Isa Samad who was suspended from the party for money politics in 2005, and former Malacca chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam.
His father's son
An Umno leader believes that while Hishammuddin and Zahid will retain their seats, Shafie has cause for concern.
"Shafie's biggest threat is Mukhriz, who has his father's backing. However, all is not lost for him as many delegates may choose not to vote for Mukhriz for three reasons.
"Firstly, he is a young politician, without the years of experience that the incumbents have. Secondly, he just became Kedah MB and people will want him to focus his efforts there. A vice-president has to travel the country, Mukhriz has to focus on the state. After all, we have only just wrested it from Pakatan Rakyat.
"And finally, money. As a state leader, Mukhriz won't have access to the coffers that a federal leader has. People might think Mukhriz can't help them and so opt for Shafie, who as a full minister, has the full might and wealth of the federal government behind him."
The 49-year-old Mukhriz ran for Umno Youth in the 2009 party polls, losing to Khairy Jamaluddin. Mukhriz is known for his friendliness, but his detractors say he is nothing more than a proxy for his still-powerful father, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
According to political analyst Prof Datuk Dr Ramlah Adam, Mukhriz has done well within Umno by campaigning on a platform looking towards new ideas and young blood.
"He will have the support of Kedah and his father's image helps. Umno may realise they need someone fresh. Now the delegates have to choose."
Ramlah said that because both Ali Rustam and Isa Samad had been in politics for so long, but with careers that had seen sizeable ups and downs, it was unlikely for them to be voted in.
"Ali also didn't do well during GE13. Further, they have roles in economic development: Ali as Perbadanan Usahawan Nasional Berhad (PUNB) chairman and Isa as Felda chairman. The delegates may think that's enough for both of them."
She added that she believed Sabah would stand behind Shafie, so it was Hishammuddin's position which was unsure.
Analyst Prof Dr James Chin agreed that it was unwise to underestimate Shafie.
"Sabahans stick together against West Malaysians."
A man's man
Zahid Hamidi is expected to retain his seat, thanks to his wild popularity following the Lahad Datu Sulu incursion. Grassroots Umno love his no-nonsense no-compromise attitude, a throwback to the days when the party faced little-to-no opposition.
His stern attitude on crime, too, has won him loyalty.
However, his alleged recent racially-charged remarks on crime may harm him during the party polls, alienating him from the centrist and more liberal delegates.
Dr Chin agreed that Zahid Hamidi may win, "but at what cost to racial relations?"
Professor of Politics and Government Dr Jayum Jawan echoed this, saying that Umno delegates may just vote centrist in anticipation of an even tougher fight in the next general election, despite it being years away.
"They might want someone who appeals to everyone," he told The Star Online, adding that Mukhriz had a very strong chance.
Zahid's statements allegedly saying that most criminals were Indians and Chinese while Malays were victims saw him being lambasted by the Chinese and Indian communities, including members of Barisan Nasional component party MCA.
But sources are confident that Zahid's swagger and popularity will see him through. Reports have shown that during walkabouts and appearances, Zahid gets the loudest cheer of the three incumbents.
With a little help from friends
Public opinion on Hishammuddin is mixed. A source close to one of the candidates claimed that many Umno grassroots members want Hishammuddin out.
"I've travelled the country campaigning and meeting with the machinery. They believe he has consistently underperformed in every ministry he helmed. The lowest of low points was his tenure as Home Minister - ineffective in attacking crime, in handling issues."
However, Hishammuddin commands great loyalty in several key areas.
Being the prime minister's cousin helps his chances, as does being married to Pahang princess Yang Mulia Tengku Datin Seri Panglima Marsilla Tengku Abdullah. According to an insider, Pahang Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Adnan Yaakob holds him in high regard and the two get on well.
The Sembrong MP also commands great loyalty in Johor Umno.
In Perak, there is MB Datuk Seri Zambry Abdul Kadir who is one of Hishammuddin's good friends from his Umno Youth days. And finally, in Sabah, Hishammuddin enjoys hero status following his role in the Lahad Datu incident.
Because of the support from leaders in Umno-dominated states, it is unlikely that Hishammuddin will be voted out.
But if delegates are keen on new blood, it remains to be seen whether he or Shafie will be sacrificed to make way for Mukhriz.
Good to be young
Jayum believes that a newfound acceptance of liberals will apply to the Umno Youth fight, and that freshly-minted Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin is a shoo-in.
"He is flying high. No problems with being returned, he is a good leader who appeals to everyone thanks to this aura he has. Akhramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi will appeal to the right wing but Umno will think of the big picture."
A former party worker who spoke on the condition of anonymity echoed this, saying the popular Khairy, or KJ as he popularly known, was "confident".
The worker said that the minister felt it wouldn't be much of a struggle this time around as "he isn't going directly against Tun Dr Mahathir in the form of Mukhriz."
He also criticised Akhramsya's campaigning style, saying it was personal and gutter politics.
"He even criticised KJ nicknaming his kids 'Cougar' and 'Puma', saying it was un-Islamic. KJ won't stoop to these levels. Akhramsya focuses on the press and front-porch politics, while KJ has been going down to the ground and working on national policy for the last three years. Akhramsyah has only been working for a few weeks now."
The former worker also said that as more than 50% of Umno delegates voting in a Youth chief would be younger than 25, Khairy's centrist policies strengthened his chances of retaining the role.
In Dr Chin's opinion, the Umno Youth fight will be fascinating to watch unfold due to the polar views of Khairy and Malay right-wing grassroots candidate Akhramsya.
"The line between Khairy Jamaluddin and Akhramsyah is very clear with KJ being centralist and the latter being a Malay right-winger.
"The results will tell us which way Pemuda is going, and what the future of Umno's leadership looks like."
Dr Chin, who teaches Political Science, dismissed the three other Youth candidates - Syed Rosli Syed Harman, Irwan Ambak Khalid Izhar and Abdul Karim Ali - outright, saying they had "no chance".
Dr Ramlah echoed this, saying that Khairy's minister role and greater experience would lead him to success.
"He is also scandal-free, and public perception of him is good, he has done impressive work in just a few months."
A woman's work is never done
A source close to former Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil is confident she'll win despite the National Feedlot Corporation scandal, as her dedication to her job will win her votes.
"She isn't getting involved in campaigning. The hantam-ing (insulting, criticising) is kept to a minimum. Shahrizat only cares about the good of the Women's wing, and this is clear because she keeps going down to the ground. Raihan is only known by some of the grassroots, and because of her father. Nobody knows Maznah well. I don't think people will care about NFC, really."
The source noted that many Wanita Umno division leaders had publicly expressed support for Shahrizat.
However, analyst Dr Ramlah thinks that Maznah has a good chance.
"Maznah will be voted in if Wanita wants a fresh outlook, ideas. She has always been active in Wanita so it's not like she's unknown.
"Additionally, Maznah will have support from Pahang, where she serves as an assemblywoman."
According to Dr Chin, the fight for Wanita Umno - between Shahrizat and Datuk Maznah Mazlan who is allegedly a proxy for former Wanita chief Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, and former Umno minister's daughter Raihan Suleiman Palestin - will see those against Shahrizat splitting votes between Maznah and Raihan in a three-cornered fight that might make Shahrizat's victory easier.
"Yes, the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal will be a factor in voting but Wanita is always driven by drama rather than logic!" he said.
Consensus among the grassroots, senior politicians, and analysts shows that sentiment is strongly in favour of both Khairy and Shahrizat.
However, the battle for the vice-presidents' post is less clear-cut. The Star Online understands that many in Umno's leadership are expecting only one new face, but whose it will replace remains to be seen.