The palace and the MB-to-be

The two most asked questions about the crisis in Terengganu are what went wrong between Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh and the palace and how this impasse will end.

REPORTERS called to a press conference by Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh on Sunday morning were surprised when told to go to his private residence, a short distance from the Mentri Besar’s official residence.

Idris had moved out of the official house shortly after news broke last weekend that the palace had named Datuk Ahmad Said, the burly and loquacious Kijal assemblyman, as the new Mentri Besar of Terengganu. He wanted to do the proper thing and he was not desperate to cling on to what was not his.

The appointment of Ahmad was yet another twist to the political melodrama in the east coast state.

Terengganu is still without a state government more than two weeks after the March 8 elections despite a clear majority for the Barisan Nasional.

On one side is Idris, whose claim to the Mentri Besar post grows more tenuous by the day even with staunch backing from Putrajaya.

On the other side is the Sultan’s choice, Ahmad, who has received his appointment letter from the palace but whose candidacy is in shambles given his impending sack from Umno plus the fact that he does not have the support of the other 23 Barisan assemblymen.

The strain shows on Idris. He had lost weight, he looked drawn and his cream-colour linen shirt hung loosely on him. But he put on a brave front before reporters that Sunday morning.

There had been so much speculation over who would be the next Mentri Besar that when The Star’s reporter in Kuala Terengganu, R.S.N. Murali, walked into the house, the other reporters called out: “The new MB is here.”

Idris saw the joke and joined in by greeting Murali by his local nickname, “Mat Ali.”

It was a brief press conference because there is little to say when things have reached a stalemate. Besides, Idris and the other assemblymen who have stood by him were leaving for Putrajaya to meet with the Prime Minister.

Idris has since received a big boost from Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi who is adamant that he wants no one else but Idris for the job. And if that was still not strong enough a message, Abdullah asked Ahmad who had turned up in Putrajaya to leave the meeting room.

Ahmad had, after all, broken rank with his fellow assemblymen by not supporting Idris. Without a party to his name or majority support from the other assemblymen, he was basically an independent wakil rakyat going nowhere.

The impasse in the state has become a full-blown standoff between Putrajaya and the palace.

Opinions in the state are divided over the issue. Some say the palace should respect the political situation. Others say the sovereign’s wishes should be respected.

But even the second group has qualms over the choice of Ahmad. The Kijal assemblyman was Idris’ junior in Universiti Sains Malaysia but they are as different as night and day.

Ahmad, an assemblyman since 1990, is personable, hard-working and has good grassroots. But he is a street-fighter type of politician with a record of volatile behaviour when under stress or challenged.

“Having him after Datuk Idris would be like going into reverse gear. Datuk Ahmad cannot even speak good English,” said a Terengganu professional.

But the two most frequently asked questions today are why the palace is so adverse to Idris and, of course, how this impasse will end.

There had been no hint of trouble between the Sultan and Idris prior to this and many were shocked at how determined the palace was about replacing him.

One top state civil servant said he was not even aware that the Sultan had any problems with Idris, let alone what the problem was.

Some have speculated that Idris’ problems had to do with the way he allowed outsiders to carry out lavish projects in the state and that he did not show enough protocol towards the palace.

Others said it was something more basic like Idris standing firm against certain “requests” from palace officials.

Much has been aired about the constitutional duties of the Sultan when it comes to appointing the Mentri Besar but the lingering impasse suggests that the solution may have to be political rather than legal.

Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin made a good point about seeking an audience with the Sultan to hear out the royal opinion, to apologise for any errors and to put forward the case for keeping Idris.

Idris has been an outstanding Mentri Besar and he delivered the state while others fell like ninepins. But if the Sultan is still uncomfortable about him, then both sides may have to come to a consensus about an acceptable alternative.

Despite the backing from his party, Idris has suffered political damage and even if his appointment were to go through, it is difficult to see him going full throttle under strained ties with the palace.

If worst comes to the worst, Idris’s replacement may have to come from the best among the assemblymen who have shown leadership and maturity throughout the crisis.

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