Umno leaders tussle for control of Malaysia's former ruling party

(From left) Umno secretary-general Annuar Musa, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who was forced to go on leave as party president last December, and acting chief Mohamad Hasan at last year's Umno General Assembly at the Putra World Trade Centre. PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - Umno's resurgence since the turn of the year has sparked a leadership tussle as different factions vie for control of the once all-dominant party after its stunning defeat in Malaysia's election last year.

The power struggle looks set to come to a head at the party's general assembly in November, when members will decide on constitutional amendments that will disqualify leaders convicted of crimes from taking up party posts.

If approved, these amendments will forestall the comeback ambitions of former prime minister Najib Razak and his erstwhile deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, as well as a coterie of party warlords, who all currently face criminal charges for corruption and abuse of power.

Sources told The Straits Times that acting Umno chief Mohamad Hasan is said to be pushing these amendments, with his ally and vice-president Khaled Nordin heading a committee tasked with overseeing the process for constitutional changes.

Several officials have publicly confirmed the proposal to disqualify convicted leaders.

But the need for two-thirds of delegates to support the amendment makes it a non-starter in the eyes of most observers who feel Najib and Zahid - not to mention other figures facing trial such as former secretary general Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor and ousted Sabah chief minister Musa Aman - can easily muster the numbers to block the motion.

"I want to see how they are going to sell this to the members. It's the internal shenanigans of a party that doesn't realise it's in opposition now," Johor Umno deputy chief Nur Jazlan Mohamed told The Straits Times, referring to the urgent need for Umno to regroup and reform to reclaim Putrajaya from the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition.

Malaysia's opposition leaders who have been convicted of crimes in the past - such as Parti Keadilan Rakyat's Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy and Democratic Action Party's Lim Guan Eng for sedition - were not ousted from their parties, which claimed the cases were politically motivated.

Similarly, Najib and Zahid have denied wrongdoing and their supporters believe PH is seeking to further weaken the opposition by hauling their leaders to court.

This attempt to block convicted leaders and wrestle power by amending the Constitution comes as Umno finds its feet after reeling from last May's defeat at the polls.

Zahid, who assumed the party presidency after Najib resigned to take responsibility for the loss, was himself forced by colleagues to go on leave five months later after 17 of Umno's 54 MPs defected and he was charged with corruption and abuse of power relating to millions of ringgit.

The party has recovered since Zahid handed over his duties to deputy president Mohamad last December, winning three by-elections this year with the help of new political ally Parti Islam SeMalaysia.

However, not all the credit has been given to former Negri Sembilan chief minister Mohamad, as Umno's run of victories also coincided with Najib's return to the fray.

The Pekan MP has seemingly shrugged off his ongoing corruption trials - related to billions of dollars from state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad - with his "Malu Apa, Bossku? (What's to be embarrassed about, boss?)" grassroots campaign that has resonated among young Malays.

While Najib, who is Umno division chief in Pekan, has not openly talked of returning to the fore, he claims to be inundated with messages saying "I miss Najib's era".

Meanwhile, talk of Zahid ending his leave has also gained momentum in recent weeks, taking the lead from Najib's revival after MP defections ceased.

In February, Zahid hinted at his return, saying "something big will happen in the country and when it happens, I will return to lead Umno".

Last month, soon after Najib's trial began, he said: "Look at 'Bossku', even though he was hit with accusations but he is the most popular in the country."

"It is not about the pressure from the grassroots, but if I am needed, I will return and my services will be available everywhere," he said in a town hall session at Umno headquarters in Kuala Lumpur.

As one Umno insider told The Straits Times: "Everyone is claiming to be the boss nowadays".

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