Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Khairy Quandry

When Khairy Jamaluddin won the Pemuda UMNO Youth Chief race, almost everyone not indebted to the young man predicted with reasonable certainty that his victory spelled doom for UMNO. Text messages went out in shocked tones expressing disgust with the UMNO Youth delegates for voting in a man found GUILTY of money politics, but let off without punishment because he was son in law of the Prime Minister and UMNO President. On the social networking website Facebook, hundreds if not thousands of politically inclined young Malaysians changed their “status” to reflect their disappointment at Khairy’s questionable win.

What was both depressing and disgusting to many interested observers was the fact that Khairy’s victory was clear evidence that Pemuda UMNO –or at least the delegates to the Youth assembly- were ready to ignore not just public sentiment against the boy, but also the earnest plea of the incoming UMNO President for the delegates to give him a line up of credible leaders. Deputy President Dato Sri Najib went so far as to shout out Dato Mukhriz Mahathir’s slogan “Berani Berubah” (Dare to change) in his speech opening the Youth Wanita and Puteri Assembly as a thinly veiled indication that he wants the likeable son of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad to lead the UMNO Youth Wing.

In the end greed prevailed. It is an open secret the kind of money that the KJ camp has spent in the run up to the party polls. Some pegged it at RM 15,000 per delegate. Others say it’s RM25,000. At 15 k, that’s a whopping RM12 million spent on the 800 odd delegates, and that’s without considering the amount spent to secure the required nominations to be eligible to contest the Youth Chief post. Was it money well spent? Yes, if your political life post the ouster of your father-in-law depends on it.

Khairy won with a 304 vote tally, defeating Mukhriz who won a little over 250 votes and Khir Toyo who won slightly more votes than Mukhriz.

It was telling that quite apart from the circle immediately fawning around Khairy, everyone else in and outside the hall where the results were announced were incredulous at Pemuda UMNO’s apparent death wish in voting for the most despised man in Malaysian politics to be their next leader at a time when UMNO is at its weakest; its credibility suspect, and its integrity dubious. It was humiliating for UMNO that its own members were chanting “KJ Rasuah! (Kj is corrupt!)” just outside the hall where the results were announced. This was not a crowd of opposition supporters. These were young members of UMNO and their anger and disappointment were obvious.

And it was not a one off thing that can be dismissed as an emotional reaction of the followers of Khir and Mukhriz immediately after their candidates were defeated. When the General Assembly of UMNO’s main body started the next day, Khairy’s unparalleled unpopularity was quite evident. Without fail he was booed and jeered every single time his name was mentioned, something that has never happened to any office bearer of UMNO in the party’s 63 year history. One delegate who tried to shower him with praises was heckled mercilessly by an unforgiving UMNO audience.It wasn’t long before people began wondering how Khairy would ever hope to strengthen Pemuda when he was so despised, indeed loathed.

But the bigger, and infinitely more interesting question is: what will Najib do with Khairy, now that it is abundantly clear that this new Youth Chief is hated not just by the public at large but even by UMNO itself? If Khairy is made a minister in his Cabinet, then Najib’s credibility will suffer and his intent to transform UMNO will be questioned. UMNO will be rejected by those outside the party, and it will be abandoned by disillusioned members within. To top it all off Najib will suffer the wrath of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, the linchpin of Malay politics whose words carry great influence. Najib’s coup de grace in bringing the Grand Old Man to the UMNO Assembly on Saturday March 28th will have meant absolutely nothing. Instead, Najib may well find himself in the same sorry position in which stood Abdullah Badawi , after Tun Dr. Mahathir began attacking him in 2006. Against Mahathir’s extraordinary appeal with the young Malay electorate and their attachment to him as the only leader with whom they grew up, no UMNO leader can hope to win a contest of popularity.

If Najib leaves Khairy out in the cold, will he lose support of the all important Pemuda wing? Most pundits doubt it. In the first place, Khairy does not command the solid support of the Youth. He himself has admitted that he did not have the majority. If Khairy was sidelined, only factions aligned to him will fault Najib. That faction is small. Remember that in the nominations for the Youth contest, Mukhriz had the lion’s share , which reflected the true grassroots sentiments, unlike the actual contest which was decided by the delegates. In other words, the majority of UMNO Youth Grassroots will be happy if KJ slapped in the face by way of not being a government post. This would be reminiscent of the situation in the late 90s, when Dr.Mahathir declined to appoint Zahid Hamidi who was then Youth Chief and instead appointed his deputy Hishamuddin tTun Hussein as Deputy Minister. Zahid had made the grave mistake of openly supporting Anwar Ibrahim in his bid to topple Mahathir.

In fact Najib should go one step further if he is serious about making changes to improve UMNO. He should appoint Mukhriz as treasurer of the party. Indeed among Najib’s circle there is already a lot of talk about this. Appointing Mukhriz would signal two things: first, that Najib believes Mukhriz to be clean and therefore suitable to guard UMNO’s coffers and second that he wants to show Khairy who’s the boss, by saying, not in so many words, “Okay. you think you can win?, I put your nemesis in a higher position than you. Suck on THAT.”

If he dares to make this move, than Najib will definitely score points with the legions of young people who despise even the name of Khairy Jamaluddin. It would signal that he is serious about transforming UMNO, and it would be a clear sign that the Badawi disaster is truly and finally coming to an end. But as always been the case with Najib… the ultimate question is: Will he dare?

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