MOHD NAJIB Mohd Isa was present at the Umno general assembly all through the weekend, but his heart was in Port Dickson.
Najib is Teluk Kemang Umno Youth chief and his father is Tan Sri Mohd Isa Samad, who quit Umno to become one of the seven candidates in the Port Dickson by-election.
“Of course I will be campaigning for my father. I am with him, heart and soul. Umno is not contesting, so there is no question of conflict of interest,” said Najib.
Mohd Isa’s image has been tainted over his role in the Felda scandal but the former Negri Sembilan mentri besar was the Umno strongman in Teluk Kemang (the former constituency’s name for Port Dickson).
The pint-sized politician has contested in the state nine times and won every time.
He is not to be taken lightly because Linggi and Bagan Pinang, state seats in the Port Dickson parliamentary, are still Umno strongholds.
Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim knows this. He made a beeline for the two areas on his first evening as a Port Dickson candidate.
There is also another thing. Every other person watching the by-election thinks that Mohd Isa was put up to it by his former mentor Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Mohd Isa, as some in Umno have pointed out, was the bold voice who asked Dr Mahathir to sack Anwar. This took place during a meeting of mentris besar and chief ministers on the night before the Umno supreme council axed Anwar from Umno back in 1998.
But Mohd Isa has insisted to his close associates that “nobody, whether top or bottom” is behind his candidacy.
He claimed he has not met Dr Mahathir face-to-face in the last six years and that he is only contesting because he thinks Anwar is not fit to be prime minister.
Well, the good times are over and no one can quite see Mohd Isa or any of the other candidates beating Anwar.
Umno’s decision to stay out is widely seen as a gesture of goodwill towards Anwar, ahead of what may be a “unity government”.
At the same time, there has been gossip that while top Umno leaders are secretly supporting Anwar, some hidden hands in the party are behind the surprise entry of Mohd Saiful Bukhari Azlan.
The popular assumption is that Mohd Saiful is there to remind the Malays on the ground of the sodomy case.
Both accuser and accused behaved like gentlemen when they met at the nomination centre. The last time they saw each other, Mohd Saiful was still a sweet-faced boy. Ten years on, he has grown into a handsome man and a father of two.
Mohd Saiful is known to have felt deeply betrayed when his idol – Dr Mahathir – joined hands with Anwar.
Contesting in Port Dickson could be his own way of standing by those accusations that had rocked the country.
The Port Dickson by-election has been dubbed the “by-election of the decade”.
It is no exaggeration because there has never been a by-election to specifically elect a prime minister-in-waiting.
“This is in no way an ordinary by-election,” said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.
“For his supporters, it is about a prime minister-in-waiting making his way back to his rightful spot at the top. That is why everyone is watching very closely.”
Anwar’s sparkling charm has been switched on to its maximum the last few days.
His ceramah are a mixture of serious issues and lighted-hearted jokes.
His walkabouts are punctuated with stops to make eye contact with ordinary people, make small talk and to flash his dazzling smile at the womenfolk.
His first stop after nominations were over was to meet up with the small Sikh community at the Gurdwara.
There, he donned the traditional headscarf to have a meal with the others present at the dining hall. He spoke of religious tolerance and noted that some ultra Malays would not approve of him being there.
Anwar is one of few senior politicians who is into pop culture and he had sung a tune about respecting all faiths from an old Hindi movie starring Raj Kapoor.
He looked genuinely pleased to have been able to bring two bitter adversaries in PKR – Datuk Seri Azmin Ali and Rafizi Ramli – to stand on the same stage, smile at each other and even hold hands.
He knows that his opponents are looking for cracks and discord in his party to exploit and hinder his return.
He wants to portray his party as 100% united behind his return to Parliament.
Some suggested that PAS candidate Mohd Nazari Mokhtar is the only serious contender to Anwar.
The ex-air force officer was picked with an eye on the large army camp vote. However, PAS’ problem is that the resort town is somewhat of a jolly type – and the local folk do not want a conservative party in charge.
PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang, who had prior to GE14 suggested that Dr Mahathir retire and volunteer at the 1MDB clinic, is now suggesting that he be allowed to serve out his two years as prime minister, presumably in a bid to bar Anwar from the top post.
At another level, says Khaw, people will be assessing the future prime minister’s stand on key issues and how he carries himself during the campaign.
It has been 20 years since Anwar held a position in the government and there are many people out there who are curious about what sort of prime minister he will be.
In that sense, it is crucial that Anwar campaigns like a statesman because his audience is not only Port Dickson but Malaysia as a whole.
Anwar’s problem in Port Dickson is not about beating the competition. It is about getting a credible voter turnout that will deliver him a respectable majority.
With that, he can show Dr Mahathir that “the people also love me”.
The prime minister-in-waiting’s grand return also needs a grand welcome vote.