Mahathir attacks Najib: Spotlight on Deputy PM Muhyiddin's stance on leadership issue

KUALA LUMPUR - All eyes are on Deputy Prime Minister and Umno No. 2 leader Muhyiddin Yassin, who has yet to speak his mind on the leadership issue following a barrage of criticism levelled at Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin last week called on Prime Minister Najib Razak and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad to resolve their differences amicably, but did not manage to quell rumours about his loyalty. These were sparked when he did not turn up at a gathering of Umno division chiefs, where they pledged their support for party president Najib.

While Dr Mahathir has not endorsed Mr Muhyiddin to be the next prime minister, former finance minister Daim Zainuddin has openly backed Umno's deputy president. The still influential Mr Daim believes that Mr Muhyiddin is the most suitable candidate to bring change to the party.

Party insiders say Dr Mahathir's attacks questioning Datuk Seri Najib's fitness to lead both Umno and Malaysia have split the party. While some Umno leaders insist that Mr Najib has the backing of the division chiefs, others are apparently waiting for Mr Muhyiddin to make known his stance before deciding what to do.

"Why should I risk my neck now? We will wait and see," said one of the division chiefs.

Another division chief was less accommodating of Mr Najib's leadership, saying he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and did not know the struggles of the Umno grassroots.

Though Mr Najib is most unlikely to relinquish the reins as party chief, this has not stopped all form and manner of scenario building.

One scenario has Mr Muhyiddin being elevated to Umno president; party vice-president and Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is close to Mr Najib, taking over as deputy president; and Kedah Menteri Besar Mukhriz Mahathir being given one of the three vice-president posts to appease his father, Dr Mahathir.

Some senior party members hope Mr Najib would follow his predecessor Abdullah Badawi and resign gracefully, to avoid an all-out war that risks destabilising the party further.

Party conservatives have made their wishes known through Mr Muhyiddin when he called for the party to hold its election in 2016 at last year's Umno annual general meeting. It has been the norm for Umno to hold its party election after the general election.

 Umno's party election was postponed from 2012 to October 2013, to make way for the country's 13th general election in May 2013. The current Umno leadership mandate will end next year while the next general election is not due until 2018.

However, it is yet to be seen how Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin would feature in the leadership struggle. He is currently Umno's most bankable leader and has hinted that the current term may be his last as Youth chief. He is credited with helping Mr Hishammuddin clinch the final spot as vice-president from Mr Mukhriz in 2013.

ASRUL HADI ABDULLAH SANI