NO one in the party, not even Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan himself, ever saw him becoming Umno’s No 1 – but there he was on Friday afternoon chairing his first supreme council meeting as the deputy president taking on the duties of the president.
Mohamad, or Mat Hasan as he is known in Umno, is the first technocrat politician to lead Umno, and he is taking over at the lowest point in the party’s history. He is also the third party chief since the general election in May, as his predecessors fight corruption charges in court.
Mat Hasan cited two core aims as the new No.1. The first involves restructuring, recovery and reform in the party, and the second is to prepare for the next general election.
“When we are in an accident, the first thing to do is to control the bleeding, and check for internal and external injuries before we can start to repair and recover,” he said.
The former Negri Sembilan Mentri Besar is no political animal, having spent a big part of his life in the corporate world.
He is an objective and moderate politician, and it is unclear whether he will be able to handle the warlords in his party or the big players in the ruling coalition.
Mat Hasan was at the Negri Sembilan state assembly when he excused himself to take an urgent call from Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi telling him that he had decided to step aside as Umno president and that he would be announcing it that night.
“I was shocked – it felt like a huge load had suddenly landed on my shoulders,” said Mat Hasan.
The next evening, Mat Hasan was at Ahmad Zahid’s house.
“He told me that his priority was the party and if people think he is standing in the way of Umno’s recovery, then he will make the sacrifice,” he said.
In Umno, people have to spend millions of ringgit, push, shove and even backstab to rise in the party.
Mat Hasan did not do any of that. His friends say that he was sort of sitting there when a musang king durian dropped onto his lap.
But the prized fruit has sharp thorns and it will be an uphill battle for him.
“I think the rank-and-file in Umno should give Mat Hasan a chance to deliver. The party grassroots is still intact, and they need a leader who can provide direction and focus,” said political commentator Dr Azmi Omar.
He said this is the chance for Umno to step out of the shadows of former president Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
“Zahid was seen as too close to Najib and it damaged him.
“Najib also needs to step out of the radar screen and stop acting like he is the de facto president or else he will also damage Mat Hasan,” said Azmi.
Mat Hasan is not interested in joining any plot to block or support PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on the premiership issue. He thinks that should be left to the will of the people.
It is well known in Umno that Mat Hasan and Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad have a relationship built on mutual respect. But that does not mean he will have an easier time, because Dr Mahathir really wants to kill off Umno.
The Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia chairman’s sharpest sword is his power to deregister Umno, and that is something that Mat Hasan wants to avoid.
However, unlike his predecessors, he is less likely to be hauled up by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
The perception in Umno is that the string of corruption charges against Ahmad Zahid is politically motivated, and that the MACC is once again a tool of the ruling coalition.
“Dr Mahathir is our political opponent but I also regard him as a father figure. I hope he will see us as his children although he has disowned the party.
“Umno has more than three million members. Why punish millions of Malays because of a few bad apples?” said Mat Hasan.
KRA strategy director Amir Fareed Rahim said Ahmad Zahid was riding high after the anti-Icerd rally, only to be confronted by the mass resignations in Sabah.
“It was a slap in the face and a sign that things were closing in on him. It looks like every time Umno takes a step forward, it gets pushed back two steps,” said Amir.
Ahmad Zahid, said a former aide, reached his decision to step aside after several nights of “solat istikhara” or prayer to seek divine guidance.
He was deeply hurt because some of those who stabbed him were people he had helped in the past.
One of them is Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin, the leader of the rebel group of MPs who had demanded that Ahmad Zahid step down.
The latter felt betrayed because he had lobbied Najib to promote Hamzah to a full minister after the 13th general election in 2013.
The actions of Rembau MP Khairy Jamaluddin, another vocal critic, also wounded him deeply.
He had stood by Khairy when the latter was left out of the Cabinet after winning the Umno Youth leadership.
Back then, he had famously said: “If I become prime minister at 12.50pm, I will make Khairy a minister at 12.51pm”.
But what upset him most was the hypocrisy of the “Hamzah faction” which thinks it is alright to gang up with outsiders to stop Anwar from becoming the prime minister after Dr Mahathir, but cannot accept others who have thrown their support behind Anwar as the next premier.
In the meantime, it is back to the drawing board for Umno.
“Mat Hasan is a respected technocratic politician, but he does not have a national profile and he has never been a federal minister,” said Amir.
He did not come from the “kilang Pemuda Umno”, that is, through the ranks of Umno Youth where most of the party’s leaders cut their teeth on.
Mat Hasan, said Amir, will have to lean on his new deputy Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who is a product of Umno Youth and its vast political network.
Ismail is the No 1 vice-president and a former minister, and he is from Pahang where Umno is still ruling.
Together, they can calm down those looking for stability and direction.
But Amir warned that Mat Hasan’s greatest challenge in the coming days is not from the Umno warlords but from factional politics as the opposing factions try to seek new political alignments within the party.
One group wants Umno to recover and rebuild. Another group is leaning towards Anwar, while a third group wants to stop Anwar.
Can Mat Hasan manage these conflicting agendas in Umno?