Posted: 11 Oct 2013 05:05 PM PDT
EXPANDED FRANCHISE: Empowered party members get to choose leaders of the various wings in historic elections
Shahrum Sayuthi, FMT
NEARLY a quarter of a million members of the Umno wings will vote today in an expanded franchise designed to empower the grassroots and level the field for contenders.
The bold reform is the cornerstone of Umno's political transformation that gathered steam in the wake of the decisive 2008 general election.
In a sign of healthy democratic process, a whopping 33,012 party members are vying for posts at all levels.
Incumbent Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, for instance, is being challenged by four others while Wanita counterpart Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil is in a three-cornered fight.
While more aspirants are able to offer their candidatures, the empowerment of the otherwise "ordinary" members has brought considerable excitement on the ground.
Members are thrilled about the prospects of electing leaders at the highest level.
Sharif Abdul Shukur, 33, of Gula Perlis Youth branch, is one of more than 70,000 empowered grassroots members of the movement who will decide if Khairy, or any of his challengers, shall be the Umno Youth leader.
"Previously I only voted for Umno Youth leaders at the branch and divisional level. This is indeed a privilege."
Sharif, who runs a small business in Padang Besar, Perlis, was one of five delegates chosen from his branch to take part in today's elaborate process.
The Wanita, Youth and Puteri elections serve as the precursor to the main event on Oct 19, where more than 140,000 delegates will elect the supreme council members and divisional leaders.
The amended Umno constitution, approved in 2009, dramatically raised the total number of eligible voters while doing away with the quota system.
Umno is not the first party to attempt such an expanded franchise but two previous bids by other parties faltered.
In 1990, MIC allowed 22 members of each branch to vote for its president in an apparent attempt to improve the party's democratic credentials but this was not repeated in subsequent party polls.
PKR, in what many believe to be a knee-jerk reaction to Umno's 2009 constitutional amendments, tried to project itself as the most democratic party in the country during its polls a year later.
Despite claiming that it allowed all members to vote, the whole party election process ended in chaos, complete with incidents of chair throwing and even punch-ups, due mostly to PKR's inability to handle the massive logistical demands.
Umno has prepared extensively, given that the process would determine if their party's grassroots could handle a higher form of democracy.
Outgoing Johor Umno liaison committee secretary Datuk Ahmad Zahri Jamil was upbeat about the prospects.
"Of course, there will be glitches here and there, but that can be overcome.
"What is more important is that this new party election system will showcase members' maturity in deciding for themselves who should lead Umno," said the veteran Parit Sulong Umno leader.
The election process is a crucial platform to effect succession plans at various levels.
Shahrizat, 60, and one of her two challengers, Datuk Maznah Mazlan, 62, could perhaps be contesting for the last time.
The third candidate is Raihan Suleiman Palestin, 47.
As for the Youth movement, Khairy, 37, appears to be in the driver's seat. Still, his challengers, Syed Rosli Syed Harman, 37, Akhramsyah Sanusi, 40, Irwan Ambak Khalid Izhar, 38, and Abd Karim Ali, 49, are putting up a spirited fight for the post.
It should be noted that all of them are also without Datukship.
This signifies the ability of the movement's leaders to hold their own without the trappings of titles and positions.
Khairy, on his part, has kept the movement going despite not holding a title or government position for much of his tenure.
Most of the contenders for top Puteri posts are contesting for the first time.
Mas Ermieyati Samsudin, 37, and Jamilah Hanim Othman, 38, who are candidates of the movement's top post, had, in several interviews, expressed almost identical visions for Puteri. Both spoke of their wish to steer Puteri back to prominence, not only within the party but also in the overall scheme of things.
Posted: 11 Oct 2013 05:00 PM PDT
THE REAL DEAL: The lynchpin of Barisan Nasional has refined its system of elections to quell the troubles of the past
Azmi Anshar, NST
IN the unrelenting scrutiny of the Umno election this weekend and next, the truism that the president of Umno is always the prime Minister is undisputed: in fact, this empowering axiom is feverishly reinforced.
Check out the noise generated by print and digital media on the Umno polls: whatever the party does or says is vigorously reported, the organisation being a barometer of any power shift, future policies and national blueprint.
For example, provocative issues volleying venomously between key Umno leaders and responded by Barisan Nasional allies and opposition alike, have an impact, no matter how subtle, on party affairs and the polls' outcome.
For every Umno leader occupied with party politicking and under-the-radar campaigning, there is a silent backer or critic out there whose activism adds, or somehow augments, the leader's lustre, exposure and reputation.
Key Umno leaders involved in slanging matches with opposition parties, for instance, seem to solidify their polls chances: they may tip-toe over the ruling against direct campaigning, but because their official position demands that they react to all comers, they stand head and shoulders over their competitors.
These give them an edge, especially if they hold cabinet or other strategic posts, as opposed to their ordinary challengers who barely muster a squeak: it was natural that they appealed to the Umno disciplinarians to allow more wriggle room for direct campaigning.
There lies Umno's paradox: for a party that prides itself in its democratic principles, from the stiff contests at its divisional grassroots to its wings and its supreme council, Umno is diffident, prickly even, on contenders' campaigning.
For candidates, there are the quaint state by state get-togethers for face time with a limited number of divisional delegates. But there can be no preening in front of the media and no proximity with the 146,500 divisional voting members (350,000 if you add Wanita, Youth and Puteri wings), meaning candidates can't advertise as they would in a general election.
A proposed debate between the six vice-presidential candidates on prime time TV elicits frowns from senior leaders, though the grassroots think it would be a hoot to view the six fighting ferociously on stage.
Bear in mind that face-to-face campaigning restrictions are confined to distributing name cards bearing a candidate's mugshot, name and candidature number. The candidates can lobby for votes through social media, and that part of the hustings is lively.
That's the rub: if Umno via BN can do a full-blown campaign directly to voters, even shake hands and pass goodies, why can't the same be permitted in party polls? The simple answer is, experience and a troubled past.
In the spasmodic years of 1981, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1993, and just before 1996, what used to be artful and gracious campaigning degenerated into a veritable snake pit -- malicious "flying letters", backbiting and sabotage -- and that was on a good day.
On a bad day, someone might just fire a pistol to stop a furniture-throwing contest, supporters get into fisticuffs, ambitious aspirants hire witch-doctors to guarantee wins (one aspirant was cut up in pieces by an overzealous bomoh) and disgruntled losers filed a lawsuit to the detriment of the party.
In between the skirmishes, the nastiest travesty transpired -- big money bribes, first as a simple transaction but later, as delegates take advantage of opposing candidates' vulnerability, virtually auctioned off their votes to the highest bidder. By the way, losing candidates get no refunds.
To stop the debauchery, the non-direct campaigning ruling was enforced for the 1996 polls and stayed from there on.
Curiously, the late Tun Ghafar Baba had suggested a radical approach to neutralise money politics: make it legal by roughly following the American method of allowing campaign funds and contributions, with transparent limits and how such funds are distributed.
Ghafar's "if you can't beat them, then join them" philosophy didn't get any traction when he verbalised the idea in 1985 before incredulous Kelantan Umno leaders attending a weekend course in Tumpat.
Intriguingly, Ghafar's vision to quell money politics just when it was getting its legs was imparted following the sensational entry into Umno of a young upstart, whose path to power was as if the Red Sea was parted for him.
This time though, the electoral base that was radically expanded to allow that many members to vote may just about shut out the money politics scourge: ambitious contenders insane enough to buy their way in would have to spend an inordinately huge amount to cover at least half of the voter members.
Whatever Umno's fallibility, there is no shaking off its top-dog tag since general elections in 1960 and by contrast, widely transparent than the opposition parties' specious democratic credentials despite their pretentious claims of democracy.
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