With party elections postponed to next year, Umno is now focused on preparing for the general election which, according to some politicians in Umno, may take place between March and June next year, writes JOCELINE TAN
UMNO politicians, it is said, live for party elections which take place once every three years. Yet, the day the Umno supreme council decided that party polls would be postponed till after the general election, there was hardly a ripple among the rank and file.
It was the second time in Umno's history that party elections had been put off this way and the first time that it happened – the 1999 party polls only took place in 2000 - there had been deep unhappiness among and even criticism from various segments in the party.
But this time, the acquiescence among Umno members was almost unanimous.
“It was obvious that everyone could see why it was necessary. The priority is the general election ? we want to recapture the seats we lost in 1999,” said Datuk Kamarulzaman Zainal, senior aide to the Deputy Prime Minister.
Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tabled the proposal to the supreme council in his capacity as chairman of the top-gun Management Committee in Umno.
The Deputy Prime Minister did not even have to do much explaining and the supreme council took only 10 minutes to give the thumbs-up to the postponement.
The supreme council invoked a clause in the party constitution that allows the tenure of party office-bearers to be extended for a maximum of 18 month from June 2003, about the time that party polls are due.
“The party,” said supreme council and Umno Youth exco member Azimi Daim, “had been talking about it for months and the decision was both expected and accepted.”
There are two ways of looking at the development.
One is that party members have come to appreciate a decision deemed as beneficial for the larger good of the party as well as the Barisan Nasional. Experience, some of it bitter, has shown that splits at the division level can cost the BN seats in the polls.
The other is an admission of sorts among politicians in the party that if they cannot contain their party rivalry, then the party leadership will have to do it for them.
The contest for posts in Umno are well-known for the intensity of the campaign and the rivalry involved, with winners often insisting on taking all and losers unable to accept their defeat.
Things said and done during the campaign are sometimes not easily forgotten, hence the danger of having a general election on the heels of a party election.
“They say there are no permanent friends or foes in politics but believe me, party elections have been known to create permanent enemies in Umno politics,” said Datuk Dr Zamry Abdul Kadir, Umno Youth exco member.
According to another Youth exco member and Temerloh Youth head Ismail Sabri: “Some people are very competitive. They don’t like to lose even in a karaoke competition, what more an Umno contest.”
The division – a party administrative area that coincides with a parliamentary constituency – is where it begins for almost every successful Umno leader. Politicians vie to become a division head because the post has traditionally formed a criterion to being considered a candidate for either a state or parliamentary seat in general elections.
Or as they say in Umno lingo, “perang dulu, barulah ada peluru.” Basically it means that only by fighting for the division can one have the ammunition to make it as a candidate for the general election.
Even the slightest split at the division level, Ismail said, can be detrimental for seats that have been won or lost by narrow majorities. And there are a number of such seats in Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and even Pahang.
“Unity is paramount if we want to recover from our losses in the last elections,” Ismail said.
A general election, suggested one political secretary to a Minister, is less of a headache than a party election.
“Hard as it may be to believe, it is easier to tackle a nation of 9.5 million voters than the 2,000 delegates to the Umno general assembly,” he said.
The real trouble starts when rivalry at the division is carried forward to a general election.
There is always concern that rivals of those picked as candidates may refuse to cooperate, or worse, they may sabotage the campaign.
In Wangsa Maju, there was an intense fight two years ago between then incumbent division head Datuk Zulhasnan Rafique and then treasurer Datuk Astaman Aziz.
Zulhasnan, a former pilot and now a well-to-do businessman, also happens to be the Member of Parliament for the area. Astaman is the polished and well-spoken son of Umno veteran, Tan Sri Aishah Ghani.
They were known in Umno circles as “dua harimau di atas bukit” (two tigers on a hill). Zulhasnan felt that as the MP, he should hold the division chief post.
But Astaman, a new age sort of politician, saw no reason why the division post should automatically go to the wakil rakyat. It was a power struggle with tinges of a clash of political attitudes.
Astaman won narrowly and the animosity continued until early last year when both men called a truce out of respect for the Deputy Prime Minister who had agreed to officiate at the divisional AGM.
Truce or no truce, many thought the rivalry would have simmered on into the next general election had the constituency not been recently divided into two new parliamentary areas, that is, Wangsa Maju and Setia Wangsa or what may eventually be a hillock each for the two tigers.
Then again, the “peluru” may not be as potent now that party polls are to take place only after the national polls.
The Prime Minister when asked by reporters whether division heads would continue to dominate among election candidates, had said in that enigmatic way of his: “We don't choose candidates simply based on their party position. We have chosen people who have never held any posts, including journalists.”
In that sense, postponing the party polls may also give the party leadership a greater leeway to introduce new blood and replace some of the less effective wakil rakyat with new faces without too much upheaval.
Party leaders would be less held to ransom by newly-elected division chiefs on the choice of candidate. This is something that many in Umno think is crucial if it wants to take on PAS and regain lost ground.
Some say the absence of opposition to the postponement may also have to do with aspiring politicians wishing stay on the good side of the top party leaders so that they can make it to the list of election candidates.
But even as party rivalries are put on the back-burner for the time being, Umno politicians have begun speculating anew on what the postponement of party polls means for the possible date of the next general election.
Some in the party have narrowed down the possible date of the next polls to between November 2003 and June 2004.
They argue that Abdullah, the next Prime Minister, is likely to lead the BN into the next general election which means that polls will take place after October. The numerous statements from Dr Mahathir that he would not contest the general election have also been taken heed of.
It would not be surprising, said an aide, if Abdullah sought a fresh mandate by calling for snap elections, just as Dr Mahathir had gone back to the people in 1982 shortly after succeeding Tun Hussein Onn as Prime Minister in 1981.
At the same time, Umno elections, which can be put off for a maximum of 18 months, will have to take place by December 2004.
However, given that there are three levels of elections to be held, namely branch, division and the supreme council, the party would have to allocate four to six months to conduct these elections.
This means that party elections, beginning with the branches, would have to be held from June or July onwards.
And that generally narrows down the possible date of the general election to between November 2003 and June 2004.
“My reading is April, May or June,” said Temerloh’s Ismail although he quickly added, “but of course, I’m only guessing.”
Others think it may be as early as this year. The BN has, in the past, called for elections on the heels of an international event that brought world attention and national pride.
There are two such potential events this year, namely, the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in February and the Organisation of Islamic Countries Summit in October, and many think they may preside a snap election.
In the meantime, every word and action of the national leadership will be closely scrutinised and analysed for hints of the next polls.