HE had dropped off the radar screen the last six months but Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has returned with a bang.
His supporters were elated and some were in tears when he announced his decision to resume his duties as Umno president at an Aidilfitri gathering in his Bagan Datuk constituency last weekend although not all in Umno shared the same euphoria.
The news left a trail of mixed feelings among those in his party.
Many were shocked and confused as to why he is doing this at a point when Umno seemed to be on the road to recovery, while some were plainly upset and aghast at the prospect of their party being led by a leader facing 87 corruption charges in court.
Terengganu Umno politician Datuk Wan Albakri Mohd Noor even described it as a “black day for Umno”.
But it is precisely all those charges that could have triggered Ahmad Zahid’s comeback decision.
The string of charges was overkill and the opinion of his inner circle is that the authorities are resorting to sensationalism to paint him as guilty even before the trial proper starts, and that is why he is fighting back.
Moreover, the Bagan Datuk MP is among some six Umno MPs – often referred to by the P. Ramlee movie title Enam Jahanam (six rascals) – who are in the purported blacklist of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“So many charges of wrongdoing thrown at him, it’s to hit the image of Umno. Zahid was democratically elected and has every right to return but how will his comeback actually help Umno?” said Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad.
Ahmad Zahid’s brief track record as the Opposition leader was not exactly outstanding and he struggled to set a direction for Umno.
Social media, in particular, has been quite unkind about his comeback, the opinion out there being that he has too much baggage.
But nobody likes the prospect of jail and it is only natural to fight back, especially if they think that there is selective prosecution at play.
Ahmad Zahid’s top aide Datuk Ibrahim Yahaya pointed out that there have been plenty of precedents of politicians holding office while facing charges in court, some of which were set by Pakatan Harapan leaders themselves.
Ibrahim said the Prime Minister continued to stand by his political secretary Datuk Mohd Zahid Md Arip who was implicated in the corruption trial of former Felda chairman Tan Sri Isa Samad.
Ibrahim also pointed out that DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng did not have to step aside and was appointed Finance Minister amid a corruption trial. Lim was cleared after the Attorney General’s Chambers withdrew the charges against him.
The timing of Ahmad Zahid’s return is bound to be viewed in the context of the recent surge in activity to make Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim the next Prime Minister.
The Umno president had tried to steer Umno towards Anwar before he was forced to go on leave.
Will he continue to nudge Umno to support Anwar now that he is back?
“No way. Umno does not want to be in a coalition involving DAP,” said Ibrahim.
Many in Umno noticed that Dr Mahathir has been less harsh on Umno ever since Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan took charge.
They could see the Prime Minister respects the Rantau assemblyman and has a soft spot for him. Moreover, Mohamad managed to restore stability and morale in the party.
However, given his personal disdain for Ahmad Zahid, the Prime Minister is likely to turn up the pressure on Umno again.
“It will intensify the tension between Mahathir and Umno,” said political insider Minaq Jinggo.
But Dr Mahathir ought to watch out too.
There seems to be a confluence of forces to take him on within and outside of his coalition. Anti-Mahathir dark clouds are forming on the horizon.
Ahmad Zahid’s return has the blessings of Datuk Seri Najib Razak. Both are in the crosshairs of Dr Mahathir and they seem to have joined forces to fight back.
Najib is amassing Malay momentum outside of Umno via his Bossku campaign while Ahmad Zahid will do it within the party.
When Najib attended the wedding of Alwi’s daughter in Kota Baru last weekend, the expected guests of about 1,000 suddenly ballooned to almost 3,000, causing the host to hurriedly order more food.
Another Dr Mahathir nemesis has also emerged on Ahmad Zahid’s side – Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah will be officiating the Bagan Datuk Umno division AGM this month.
Ku Li, as he is known to all, has emerged as the grand old man of Umno and also a moral voice of sorts. He is obviously sending out a signal that ought to set off alarm bells in the Dr Mahathir camp.
All this is happening amid so much talk that those around Anwar want to see him back in the Cabinet by the end of the year.
When Anwar turned up solo at the spectacular Bersatu Hari Raya open house in Kulim on Saturday night, he was overheard conveying greetings from his wife to Tun Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali.
The assumption was that the PKR president was not only representing his party but also his Deputy Prime Minister wife.
Political commentator Amir Fareed Rahim is closely watching how this flurry of political activity will pan out for both sides.
“Will it lead to another numbers game in Parliament? How will the political chess game play out? Will there be more defections from Umno?” said Amir.
It is well-known that the mainstay of Umno trusts Dr Mahathir more than Anwar and they are unlikely to appreciate their president’s pro-Anwar’s stance.
He will need to tread carefully from here. At times, Ahmad Zahid is still very much the kampung boy from Bagan Datuk, the sort that a political sophisticate like Dr Mahathir can devour in a few bites.
Can he take on Dr Mahathir or will he be swallowed up?
Joceline Tan was an associate editor of The Star and continues to contribute political analyses. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Star.