No contest for Umno's top three as party eyes big win at general election

Umno party president Najib Razak (right) with his deputy Zahid Hamidi (centre) and Hishamuddin Hussein (left) at the opening ceremony of the Umno 70th General Assembly 2017. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KUALA LUMPUR - The top three positions in Umno will not be contested at its next internal polls, in a move to stamp out infighting ahead of a crucial general election due by August.

A resolution that Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi be returned as the ruling party's president and deputy president respectively without contest was unanimously agreed by the general assembly on Friday (Dec 8).

Members of Umno's highest decision making body, the Supreme Council, had this week agreed to also have a no-contest for one of the three vice-president (V-P) posts, which will protect the position of V-P Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein.

"We took the decision... to accept the senior vice-presidency should be given to Datuk Seri Hishammuddin," said Datuk Seri Zahid at a press conference immediately after the resolution of no-contest for the top two posts was passed, with Mr Hishammuddin by his side.

Although there was no formal resolution for one of the three V-Ps to be earmarked for Defence Minister Hishammuddin, the proposal by members of the Supreme Council was received with overwhelming approval by delegates when it was raised during the assembly's debates.

The Straits Times understands that the proposal for the no-contest for the top three posts was also widely applauded by delegates who attended on Tuesday Datuk Seri Najib's closed-door presidential address.

Without full adoption by the whole party, though, the agreement on the V-P post could be viewed as an informal deal.

While the top two posts have seen no-contests in past years, a move to stop a contest for any of the V-P posts has never been carried out before.

Mr Hishammuddin told reporters: "I feel relieved and proud... that the leadership lineup has... the blessing of the grassroots".

In Umno's internal vote in 2013, Mr Zahid came in first in the V-P race, while Mr Hishammuddin - PM Najib's cousin - narrowly scraped through to defend one of three vice-presidencies.

The third vice-president, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, left the party last year after disagreements over the scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Home Minister Zahid rose to become the acting deputy president, after Datuk Seri Najib sacked his then-deputy Muhyiddin Yassin last year due to the 1MDB fallout.

Mr Hishammuddin is thus the only Umno V-P left. Ensuring his position is secure from other challengers should help steady Umno as it faces the general election.

The party elections were originally due by October 2016 but were delayed to prepare for the national ballot. The Straits Times understands that Umno will write to the Registrar of Societies to allow the party to further delay its internal vote, due by April 2018, so that it does not clash with the general election.

Party sources told The Straits Times that the V-P race is likely to see a crowded field next year. Despite his seniority in the party, Mr Hishammuddin had slipped down the pecking order at the 2013 Umno polls, and other ambitious warlords are aiming to leapfrog him.

The move on Friday (Dec 8) ringfences Mr Najib and his two top lieutenants, amid reports and speculation that they have been jockeying to increase their influence in the party, a tussle which could intensify if the premier fails to win a resounding mandate at the general election.

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