KUALA LUMPUR • Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said yesterday that he is stepping aside as Umno president and passing the baton to his deputy, in a second surprise to hit Malaysian politics in as many days.
His move followed mounting pressure from party leaders for him to step down following the mass defection of Umno lawmakers last week and complaints that he had been an ineffectual leader seven months after the party lost in the general election.
Several Umno leaders had openly called for his resignation in recent days, including former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin.
Zahid, who was formerly Malaysia's deputy prime minister and is now facing more than 40 charges in court, including for criminal breach of trust and graft, said in a statement: "Based on the struggle faced by the party today, I have decided to entrust the deputy president with the tasks of the president."
Umno's deputy president is Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, 62, the former menteri besar of Negeri Sembilan, an Umno stronghold state that fell to the Pakatan Harapan alliance in the May 9 election. He defeated a challenger in the June Umno polls to become deputy president.
Zahid, 65, said in his statement carried by Malaysian media that he felt the concerns of some Umno leaders that they, too, might face pressure, or be investigated by the authorities, due to the allegations facing him.
"To strengthen the party, and in the interest of all, Members of Parliament and assemblymen, necessary measures need to be taken," he said yesterday evening.
His unexpected statement followed the shock announcement on Monday by MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, 38, the senior vice-president of ruling Parti Keadilan Rakyat and outspoken daughter of politician Anwar Ibrahim, that she was giving up all party and government posts.
As for Zahid, he took over as party president from former prime minister Najib Razak just days after the Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition lost power in the general election.
Zahid won in internal party elections in June after beating two rivals - Mr Khairy and veteran lawmaker Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
But Zahid's leadership has been called into question within the party itself.
Umno won 54 MP seats in the May polls, but has been losing lawmakers since. It has 37 MPs today - a loss of 17, or nearly a third of its federal lawmakers.
The defectors included 11 MPs who quit the party last week - six of whom were from Peninsular Malaysia and five from Sabah.
In Sabah, Umno last week also lost nine assemblymen who turned independent or joined other parties, and 22 of its 25 divisional chiefs.
Political observers say that the Sabah resignations have crippled Umno in the state, which was described prior to the May polls as a "safe deposit" state for BN.
Zahid's statement yesterday came as a surprise as he had been resisting pressure to step down in the past few days, amid intense speculation that yet more Umno MPs would quit the party.
He said in a statement on Sunday: "I will not bow down to a small group of people who wanted me to step down." He added that only an emergency Umno general assembly could force him out.
His move to step aside is expected to be discussed soon by the party's top policymaking body, the Umno Supreme Council.
SEE WORLD: Questions abound as Nurul Izzah quits