Posted: 21 Oct 2013 09:14 PM PDT
Azman Ujang, The Sun Daily
THE election for the three coveted posts of Umno vice-president over the weekend turned out to be the most sizzling party polls in over 25 years as I predicted in this column a month ago.
While it was plain sailing for incumbents Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal who led the race from the start judging from unofficial results that began trickling in early Saturday evening, it was neck and neck between another incumbent Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and what a nail-biting finish it was.
Many followers of the polls involving the nation's most powerful political party stayed till the wee hours of Sunday glued to live TV telecasts awaiting the official results that were finally announced well past 2am.
Mukhriz's surprise candidacy had provided the real sparks in the polls and must have excited millions of young Malaysians. And with so much hype about Umno losing support among Generation Y in the last two general elections, they were cheering him on to be their icon even in his maiden but brave attempt to be among the top Umno leadership.
It's also in line with the rejuvenation plans of the grand old party through the injection of younger leaders as it faces the next general election where over four million young voters are expected to be added to the electoral roll.
But to their disappointment, it was not to be. Although Mukhriz polled more popular votes than Hishammuddin, he still lost under the new "electoral college" system in use for the first time where an enlarged and more inclusive electorate of 146,500 party officials at 191 divisions went to the polls instead of the previous system where only some 2,500 delegates voted at the party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur.
Under this system, each of three candidates who polls the most votes from the divisional delegates secures one vote from the division.
Hishammuddin in winning the final third slot in the VP hierarchy polled 56,604 votes from 101 divisions against 57,189 votes for Mukhriz obtained from 93 divisions.
Both Umno president Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his deputy Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin praised Mukhriz for his impressive first outing where he secured almost half of the total of 191 Umno divisions.
"I feel Mukhriz has shown a most encouraging performance although he is new and had announced his intention to contest rather late. He has shown that he has good support in the party," said Najib at a joint press conference with Muhyiddin.
Muhyiddin was spot on when he described Mukhriz's failed bid as a "victory in defeat".
Mukhriz's father, former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, gave his youngest son only a 50-50 or less chance of winning the tough race but the massive support he received must have surprised both father and son.
"I was pleasantly surprised considering that I had to compete against the incumbents amid pessimism among some quarters about my candidacy. It was a tough contest. I left it to God and accept the outcome as a blessing in disguise," said Mukhriz, who is Kedah mentri besar.
Mukhriz actually went to the battle front with the odds stacked against him. Besides the pessimism that he spoke about, a few days earlier both Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and his Wanita Umno counterpart Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil came out declaring full support for Hishammuddin, as well as asking delegates of the Umno wings to throw their support behind him.
This came amid talk that Hishammuddin's campaign and popularity was floundering in the wake of accusations against him that he was a weak leader.
The defence minister was quick to issue a denial saying such presumption was baseless and ill-intentioned, adding that "I am far from being weak. If I am weak, the country would have been in chaos."
What's important or ethical in a party contest such as this was to ensure there was a level playing field but this element was thrown out of the window when key personalities started to take sides openly.
Then a day before polling, Mukhriz had to contend with a vicious attack on his personality that was akin to a sabotage, this time coming from a Facebook account and an online news portal.
The Facebook account allegedly slandered him and had used Muhyiddin's name for the purpose. It posted an "announcement" that Mukhriz had been disqualified by the Umno disciplinary committee from contesting for the VP spot as he had breached party ethics.
Muhyiddin had to instruct the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission to investigate the account that used his name to slander Mukhriz. Hopefully, the MCMC will let the public know of the outcome just as quickly.
As polling got under way on Saturday, Mukhriz demanded that the news portal apologise and retract its article before 10am or face legal action, which it did in the nick of time. It had carried an article accusing Mukhriz of sending out 1.2 million SMSes and giving out cash to boost his chances in the race.
He accepted the apology from the news portal but said "the way the article came out a day before polling day has raised questions that the article was written with bad intention".
The party polls this time also showed that the power and influence of Umno division chiefs, who are sometimes termed warlords, was still very much alive and kicking.
Najib denied claims that he had issued instructions for the three incumbents to be retained, stressing that there was no way to interfere with the voting delegates numbering nearly 150,000.
But Joceline Tan, a respected political columnist, wrote that despite denials from various quarters, it was evident there was an order from high up to maintain the status quo.
I think such an order came mainly from the division chiefs, who in their own areas call virtually all the shots.
And these chiefs would be the last persons to "antagonise" especially incumbents who hold powerful government posts, which also explains why most of those elected to the 25-seat supreme council are either ministers, deputy ministers and those holding key positions in government-linked companies and agencies.
For how else could one explain the fact that former Malacca chief minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, the other contender for the six-man race and once among Umno's most popular figures, could not even get a vote from five of the six divisions in his state. He only won in his own division of Bukit Katil.
But being the gentleman that he is, he said: "This is (the) reality that I have to concede. When I do not hold any position at state or federal level, no one wants to look at me. But in the past, when I was chief minister for 13 years, everyone supported me."
The same fate befell former Negri Sembilan mentri besar Tan Sri Isa Samad. Both he and Mohd Ali obtained only seven votes.
For Mukhriz, moving forward he said his defeat won't derail his plans to help rejuvenate Umno. When he announced his candidacy earlier he said he wants to represent voices from inside and outside the party "craving for changes in Umno".
A day after the hard-fought race, he said: "I'm suddenly totally out of the picture. It's my hope that the party president will consider appointing me into the supreme council so that I, too, can contribute towards doing better in the next general election."
With the massive votes that he obtained, Mukhriz could be someone that Najib could not afford to leave out among the 10 appointees to the supreme council that he is expected to name soon.
Muhyiddin, who chairs the party's management committee, said a post-mortem would be conducted to identify weaknesses in the electoral college system that was tried out for the first time in last week's polls.
Among other things, Umno could consider adopting a popular vote or first past the post system like in our general election where a candidate with the most votes is declared the winner.Azman Ujang is a former editor-in-chief of Bernama.
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