The top three positions in Umno will not be contested at its next internal polls next year, 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 to by the general assembly yesterday.
Members of Umno's Supreme Council, its highest decision-making body, also agreed this week to have no contest for one of the three vice-president posts, which will protect the position of Defence Minister 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 no-contest resolution for the top two posts was passed, with Mr Hishammuddin by his side.
Although there was no formal resolution to earmark a vice-president position for Mr 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 no-contest proposal for the top three posts was also applauded by delegates at Datuk Seri Najib's closed-door presidential address on Tuesday.
Hishammuddin cements top-flight post
The move by Prime Minister Najib Razak in April to make Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, 56, the Special Functions Minister raised many eyebrows.
Amid all kinds of political interpretations, Datuk Seri Najib said the new post will help his cousin perform duties beyond defence.
Datuk Seri Hishammuddin, after all, is close to many Middle Eastern leaders.
But the whispers about the post refused to die down.
Some see it as Mr Najib, 64, shoring up his position as he tries to protect himself against any possible challenge in the future by Umno's acting deputy president, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
According to this view espoused by some analysts, the new post elevated Mr Hishammuddin and signalled to Datuk Seri Zahid, who is also 64, that the step to the prime ministership is not quite so clear-cut, as Mr Hishammuddin might want the No. 1 post too.
Mr Hishammuddin does not really need much help to climb, as he is a blue blood in Umno.
He is the grandson of Umno founder Onn Jaafar, and son of Malaysia's third prime minister, the late Tun Hussein Onn.
The Umno Supreme Council's decision to reserve one of three vice-president positions for him cements further his position at the top of the party that has ruled the country since independence.
While the top two posts have seen no-contests in past years, there has never been a move to stop a contest for any of the vice-president posts. Without full adoption by the whole party, though, the agreement on the vice-president post could be viewed as an informal deal.
Mr Hishammuddin told reporters: "I feel relieved and proud... that the leadership line-up has... the blessing of the grassroots".
In Umno's internal vote in 2013, Mr Zahid was first in the vice-presidential race, while Mr Hishammuddin - Mr 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 Berhad (1MDB).
Home Minister Zahid rose to become the acting deputy president after Mr Najib sacked his then deputy Muhyiddin Yassin last year due to the 1MDB fallout.
Mr Hishammuddin is thus the only Umno vice-president left.
Ensuring his position is secure from other challengers should help steady Umno as it faces the general election.
Two weeks ago, Mr Hishammuddin alluded to jostling in Umno for the top posts. He mentioned the possibility of some wanting to pit Mr Najib against Mr Zahid for the post of president, while others might want to pit him against Mr Zahid for the No. 2 post.
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 next year, so that it does not clash with the general election.
Party sources told The Straits Times that the vice-presidential 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.
Yesterday's move ring-fences Mr Najib and his two top lieutenants, amid reports and speculation of the intense jockeying for a better position in the Umno polls.