IT was one of the darkest days in his political career but Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi put on his most dazzling smile as he waved to the Umno crowd that had turned out to lend him moral support in court on Friday.
He is known in Umno as a jantan or macho politician who gives as good as he gets but 45 charges of corruption and money laundering are no small matter and his heart must have been as heavy as a rock behind the smiles.
Everyone is innocent until proven guilty but as some have pointed out, the charges are very specific and not something to be taken lightly.
It was also a dark day in the history of Umno – a sitting president facing criminal charges.
It has never happened before and it means that Umno has become a body without a head.
The party has been floundering and without a direction since May 9 and the latest development has set the party back even further.
And all this is taking place amid sensational charges levelled against their former president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
“The relentless legal challenges make things difficult for us, something the party has never gone through before. But our spirit is strong, we are still a formidable minority bloc,” said Umno Youth deputy chief Shahril Hamdan.
Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who met his beleaguered president a few days before his court appearance, said Dr Ahmad Zahid was calm and collected despite the pressure.
“He is mentally prepared. He knew they were coming after him,” said Mohamad.
The Umno supreme council, which is scheduled to meet on Nov 9, will decide on whether Dr Ahmad Zahid has to take leave of his presidency.
“It’s up to the supreme council to decide. I’m not sure if it’s in our constitution but there is a precedent that those facing charges in court have a choice to take leave. If proven innocent, they will be reinstated,” said Mohamad.
There is also some deep irony going on – their former president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has brought down a total of three presidents of Umno.
This was precisely why Umno had feared Dr Mahathir. The Prime Minister understands the power of incumbency and how to use it.
He may come across as a frail old man but his mind is furiously ticking away on how to checkmate his opponents.
He knows that cutting off the head will leave the body politic of Umno in disarray.
The sight of Najib and Dr Ahmad Zahid going in and out of court over the next few years will play like an unending soap opera to keep the public entertained while the Pakatan Harapan government gets their act together and try to put the economy back on its feet.
On the other hand, the Umno rank-and-file perceive the legal attacks against their leaders as political persecution.
Umno members protesting outside the court where Dr Ahmad Zahid was being charged had unfurled a long banner urging Dr Mahathir to focus on serving the people instead of seeking revenge.
The protesters also accused Attorney General Tommy Thomas, whom they nicknamed “Tommy Tomato”, of dropping charges against Pakatan leaders and of political persecution against Umno leaders.
Well, that seems to be the name of the game. Barisan Nasional had also used the courts and the then attorney general Tan Sri Apandi Ali, whom the Pakatan side nicknamed “Apa jadi”, to go after their political enemies.
“It is actually quite consistent because Pakatan did campaign on a strong anti-corruption message. But the reality is that the charges will drain him (Dr Ahmad Zahid) and his family.
“It will keep him occupied and divide his attention and focus. In the meantime, Dr Mahathir will take the opportunity to strengthen his party’s political base,” said KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim.
The clampdown on the top Umno leadership is bound to add fuel to swirling speculation that a new Malay party may be formed by December to provide a new “house” for Umno and Parti Pribumi members, especially those who are already MPs.
The story is that the new party, which will remain as part of Pakatan, aims to gather the most MPs under its roof and be the dominant coalition partner.
But some political insiders say that Dr Ahmad Zahid’s troubles may also be related to talk that he is leaning towards Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
It is understood that Dr Ahmad Zahid was referring to Anwar’s party when he declared during the Umno general assembly that Umno is willing to cooperate with any other party to form the government.
It is an open secret by now that Dr Mahathir and Anwar have been quietly doing the maths on how many MPs that each of them can rely on if push comes to shove.
Both men detest Umno but Umno has the biggest cache of MPs whom both Dr Mahathir and Anwar would not mind having on their side.
Moreover, during a hush-hush meeting between Dr Mahathir and a top PAS leader in London earlier this month, the elder man had apparently asked PAS to cut off all ties with Dr Ahmad Zahid.
Dr Ahmad Zahid and Anwar go back a long way and it is only natural that he feels more comfortable with Anwar rather than the man whom he had once labelled mamak kutty.
Those close to Dr Ahmad Zahid say that his darkest day in politics was when he was put under the Internal Security Act 1998 for supporting Anwar.
Are his current political troubles once more related to him choosing to align with Anwar?
In the meantime, Dr Ahmad Zahid should seriously consider taking leave as Umno president to focus on clearing his name in court.
Umno members spent the last four years defending their then president on the 1MDB scandal.
If Dr Ahmad Zahid stays on, the party will be spending more years defending another president on money issues and that will derail the party from moving forward.