Thorn in Zahid’s side

ISHAM Jalil was, once upon a time, regarded as mentri besar material in Selangor.

Today, the Umno supreme council member has become somewhat of a thorn in the side of his party president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The reason is that Isham, a graduate of Harvard University, speaks his mind and that has not gone down well with Ahmad Zahid who is sensitive to criticism that the Malays have strayed from Umno.

Many in Umno thought Isham would be sacked but Ahmad Zahid, as one Umno aide pointed out, is “strong yet fragile” and sacking yet another critic would not help his image given how badly his action against Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein went down with the party base.

Besides, Isham is only speaking the truth to power in pointing out that Umno has lost the Malay mandate.

Isham was formerly a top aide of Datuk Seri Najib Razak, hence the impression that he is speaking with the blessing of Bossku.

“The perception is that the party used Najib but has not done enough for him. There is frustration that all those promises made at Umno gatherings were not kept. What action has been taken?” said former Pasir Salak vice-chief Dr Faizal Tajuddin.

The top party leadership has kept the line of communication open to Najib’s children, three of whom are now active in politics.

Nooryana Najwa is a Puteri Umno exco member, Datuk Nazifuddin is the Langkawi Umno chief and Datuk Nizar is a Pahang state exco member who is seen as a future mentri besar.

Outwardly, they are supportive of Ahmad Zahid but there are whispers that the family thinks the party should take a more proactive stand on the issue of a royal pardon for Najib.

A senior Umno politician who attended one of Najib’s court appearance, was told by a family member: “Please do something. Get your friends to do something.”

The sense is that the Umno leadership is not serious about it. It is unlikely that Najib can ever return to lead Umno but a freed Najib may present an alternate leadership to disgruntled elements in Umno and pose a threat to Ahmad Zahid.

A Bossku supporter had claimed that most of the people who meet up with him in court are those who do not like Ahmad Zahid, the most recent being Khairy.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim would not want to share the spotlight with Bossku either. Both men are crowd magnets and the circle around the Prime Minister would not welcome that kind of competition.

Anwar also needs to be sensitive to his base. His government has already crossed a red line by granting Ahmad Zahid the DNAA or discharge not amounting to an acquittal. Pardoning Najib would be crossing another red line.

Moreover, Najib is still battling two cases in court while the 1MDB scandal continues to unravel like a Pandora Box and the main culprit Jho Low is still roaming free. A royal pardon would be terribly awkward and messy with all this going on.

In the meantime, Ahmad Zahid is out to restore his image.

He is on what lawyer and Umno politician Ainul Aizat Ahmad Ishak calls a “charm campaign” to bring his side of the story to the party rank-and-file at the division level.

“We asked the president not to react to Isham’s provocation and he agreed to go on a roadshow to explain issues that are bothering our grassroots like working with DAP, the future of Umno and also the DNAA.

“This is a challenging time but we are united in making sure that this government remains until the next general election,” said supreme council member Datuk Seri Alwi Che Ahmad.

Winning only 19 out of 109 seats in the state elections was the ultimate loss of face for the party. The subsequent by-election wins were hollow victories that merely confirmed that Umno is in decline and no longer the choice of the Malays.

The stark reality is that the Malay vote bank has changed ownership and the new owner of the bank, so to speak, is none other than PAS.

Ahmad Zahid is not in denial about the situation.

“Our president understands the reality on the ground, he is calmer and more sober these days. Winning Pelangai was important for us, it showed that Umno is able to dilute the green wave. But there is a lot of work to be done, especially in grooming new leaders,” said supreme council member Datuk Seri Sharkar Shamsudin who is also Pahang’s state assembly Speaker.

Ahmad Zahid might be able to make inroads in reaching out to the party faithful but can he win back the Malays outside of Umno?

“With his legal problems settled, there is little to stop him from staying on. He probably wants to redeem himself so that he will not go out as the worst president Umno has ever had,” said Dr Faizal.

No one can quite read whether he is eyeing another term as Umno president or if he will contest the next general election. Some even think he has not ruled out the possibility of becoming prime minister after Anwar.

But the opinion in the party is that if Ahmad Zahid wants to go another term as president, it must be through an open contest in the Umno election due in 2025.

The no-contest ruling for the top two posts was an unpopular decision and it denied Ahmad Zahid and Datuk Seri Mohamed Hasan the legitimacy that comes with being elected.

In particular, it damaged Mohamed in the eyes of Unmo members. Mohamed had previously come across as the white knight who could revive Umno but opinion about him started to waver after the no-contest decision.

At this point in time, it is likely that even Ahmad Zahid is unsure about what lies ahead.

He will probably have a better idea after his divisional roadshow to touch base with the party grassroots.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own

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