BECOMING the president of Umno was once the stairway to power, but that did not happen for Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as he has been fighting one fire after another in his party.
Dr Ahmad Zahid is feeling the heat as a result of the latest flashpoint - the tussle for the Sabah Chief Minister (CM) post which went to Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia’s Datuk Hajiji Mohd Noor.
The Umno rank-and-file is still fuming that the party had to “surrender” the coveted post to Bersatu despite Umno winning more seats than the other parties in the Sabah pact known as Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS).
Dr Ahmad Zahid had pressed hard for Umno to get the job and the standoff caused the transition of power to be delayed by almost two days, with heated arguments that lasted through the night and rumours of a shattered glass table.
But the thing is that Hajiji was better positioned for the job, whereas Sabah Umno chief Datuk Seri Bung Moktar Radin is facing corruption charges in court - and it would be awkward to have the CM of Sabah trooping in and out of court.
The Sabah crisis is over but the wounds are still raw.
For instance, after Hajiji and Bung Moktar held a press conference to acknowledge Hajiji as the next Chief Minister, both men smiled for the cameras, shared fist bumps but left through separate doors.
Some in Umno felt Dr Ahmad Zahid did not push hard enough in Sabah and Umno No 2 Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan has fired the first shot in what appears to be a call for a review of Umno’s ties with Bersatu.
“The resentment in Umno has been on the boil. First, they (Bersatu) took our wakil rakyat, now they are claiming our seats as their seats. That was what happened in Sabah, ” said former Kapar Umno division chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.
The Sabah CM issue had come on the heels of the Perak takeover which saw Umno, with 25 assemblymen, having to hand over the Mentri Besar post to Bersatu which has only five assemblymen.
It caused a lot of dissatisfaction in the party but no one dared to openly criticise the move because it was the decision of the Palace to reappoint Bersatu’s Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu as Perak Mentri Besar.
It was terribly embarrassing for Dr Ahmad Zahid who is from Perak and who had assured people in his party that the post would go to Umno, according to a journalist.
The Umno president’s recent “support” for PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s claim that he had the numbers to form the government bid has also gone down badly with his party.
“Yes, we are frustrated about Bersatu, but there is no way Umno will join Anwar or any coalition that has DAP in it. DAP is our No 1 enemy, ” said Umno’s Faizal.
Moreover, it does not make sense for Umno to support Anwar when Umno is eyeing the prime minister's post for itself.
Some in Umno saw Dr Ahmad Zahid’s action as a veiled threat to Bersatu, to signal that Umno’s support is crucial for the survival of Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s government.
Others think Dr Ahmad Zahid and Anwar are trying to push the PM towards a snap general election.
The court verdict for Dr Ahmad Zahid’s corruption trial could come about before the end of the year and he will be disqualified from contesting in the general election if he is found guilty.
As such, an early election would work in the Umno president’s favour.
Dr Ahmad Zahid has been stressed out by the trial and during the tea break at one of the hearings in August, he chain-smoked his favourite Semporna brand of cigarettes while telling those around him that he had to face endless bombardment in the party.
When a friend urged him to be patient, he said that “patience has a limit”.
He is an angry man and regards the court charges as political prosecution and a scheme by his enemies to end his political career.
It is no secret that Dr Ahmad Zahid blames Umno’s problems on the “man behind the curtain, ” that is, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hamzah Zainuddin.
Hamzah, who played a pivotal part in the Sabah election, has emerged as a trusted right-hand man to the Prime Minister.
The publicity-shy Hamzah is a discreet and strategic politician who knows how to exercise his clout without showing off.
Comparisons have been drawn between Hamzah and Tun Daim Zainuddin, the secretive and low-profile millionaire politician whom Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad entrusted with secret missions.
Dr Ahmad Zahid also feels that the Prime Minister does not accord him the respect he deserves as the leader of the biggest Malay party.
For instance, when Muhyiddin hosted a pow-wow with top party leaders at his official residence in Putrajaya in July, Dr Ahmad Zahid noted that it was GPS leader Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg who was placed next to the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, Umno chat groups are still on fire about the Sabah episode. They cannot get over the fact that Umno was outplayed by Hamzah in Sabah.
Umno is a big and established party but it is tough to take on a party whose president is the Prime Minister.
Moreover, it would be a mistake for Umno to underestimate Muhyiddin.
He wields the powers of incumbency, he knows Umno inside out and he has even out-manoeuvred Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Muhyiddin’s survival instincts have surprised many of his old friends in Umno. It is only now that they are learning that behind that stoic demeanour is a politician who speaks softly and carries a long knife.
In hindsight, the Sabah election was an valuable experience for both Umno and Bersatu in terms of what to expect in the general election where the stage will be bigger and where their rivalry will be acted out on a national scale.
Unfortunately, the Sabah victory has deepened the tensions rather than strengthened ties between the two parties
And with the growing momentum in Umno to redefine the party’s relationship with Bersatu, the question being asked is whether the two parties will be contesting the next general election as friends or as foes.