UMNO, the lynchpin of Malaysia's ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, has postponed next year's party election for 18 months, meaning it is likely to be held only after the country's general election.
Party president Najib Razak, who is also Prime Minister, announced this yesterday after a meeting of Umno's policymaking Supreme Council, saying he wants Umno to focus on strengthening BN ahead of the general election due around mid-2018.
Umno's party election is usually held every three years, with the next one scheduled around the last quarter of next year.
Datuk Seri Najib noted that his two predecessors had also delayed party elections, which is allowed under the party Constitution.
Analysts see the move as a sign that Mr Najib, 61, is digging in his heels as he faces a tough fight against former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who is trying to dislodge him.
A delay, the analysts say, also gives him more time to tackle the mess created by 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which is Tun Dr Mahathir's chief weapon to bring him down.
Mr Najib, who took office six years ago, is also facing public anger over cost-of-living issues caused by poor implementation of the 6 per cent goods and services tax in April and a much weakened ringgit.
"This decision is in accordance with the party Constitution and not something unusual," he told reporters at a news conference where he made the surprise announcement. "Previous party presidents, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, also made similar decisions and gave the same reason when postponing the party election."
The postponement would give the government more time to better serve the people, he said.
"This is also to strengthen the party with our BN counterparts in the coming general election," he added.
Mr Najib's surprise move effectively blocks any plans Dr Mahathir may be making to oust him at Umno's party election next year.
"By postponing (the party election), he is practically telling his detractors that he is here to stay," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng, who runs his own consultancy, told The Straits Times.
There are two ways to dislodge a sitting Malaysian prime minister, according to Mr Khoo.
One is through a no-confidence vote in the 222-seat Parliament, a near-impossible task as BN controls more than half the seats.
The other is through the party election. The party's president traditionally goes on to become Prime Minister.