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SINGAPORE — A former archrival of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is testing the waters to gauge popular support for a possible bid for the presidency or deputy presidency of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the country’s leading political party.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah is aware that the stakes involved for such a contest in May — which could pit him against either the incumbent president, Mahathir or his nominee for deputy president, Abdullah Badawi — are extremely high. If he wins, he will be propelled to a position of great power; but defeat would mean political oblivion.

In the tradition of race-based Malaysian politics that has prevailed since the country’s independence in 1957, whoever becomes the president of UMNO, the backbone of the multiparty National Front (NF) coalition government, also lays claim to the post of prime minister. The deputy prime minister’s position is then occupied by the UMNO deputy president, while key ministerial seats are taken by other UMNO leaders.

All these symbolize and reflect the political dominance of the Malays who make up some 55 percent of Malaysia’s 20 million multiracial population. Analysts say the move by Razaleigh, a 62-year old Malay prince from the north Malaysian state of Kelantan, has not only been prompted by widespread unhappiness among UMNO’s 2.7 million members over the decision of the party’s supreme council not to allow contests for the two top positions.

Democratic move

He had also been encouraged by the recent public statements of two former deputy prime ministers, Ghafar Baba and Musa Hitam. Both UMNO veterans had maintained that contests for the top leadership positions was a healthy move to encourage democracy in the party, leading to the election of the best possible leaders.

On Feb. 17, the party’s supreme council ruled that Mahathir and Abdullah should not be challenged when more than 1,000 delegates from UMNO’s 165 divisions nationwide meet May 11-14 to elect the president, deputy president, three vice presidents, the heads of the youth and women’s wings and 25 supreme council members.

The council’s rationale for the “no-contest” move was that it would lead to a big split in the party. Analysts say UMNO could not afford such a split at a time when it is trying to rebuild itself after suffering severe losses to the opposition theocratic Islamic Party (PAS) in Malaysia’s general elections last November. They cite the dire consequences of one such split in 1987, when Razaleigh took on Mahathir and came close to defeating him.

When the votes were counted on the night of April 24, 1987, Razaleigh polled 718 votes to Mahathir’s 761. Razaleigh then resigned from UMNO with his supporters, including several top ranking party ministers, to form a splinter movement called the Semangat 46 (Spirit of ’46) in 1988. This left Mahathir the painful task of rebuilding the party from the debacle, by grooming up then up-and-coming leaders like Anwar Ibrahim and other loyalists.

Semangat meanwhile cooperated with PAS based on the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Their pact managed to defeat UMNO in Kelantan, but failed elsewhere in Malaysia’s 1990 and 1995 general elections.

Following an expected falling out with PAS, Razaleigh dissolved Semangat in 1996 and returned to the fold of UMNO after making peace with Mahathir. Razaleigh’s return to the party after an absence of eight years had led to speculations that he was brought back to counter the growing ambitions of Anwar, who had already been deputy president and deputy premier for three years, to topple Mahathir.

Rival Abdullah

Anwar lost both his positions in September 1998 after Mahathir sacked him, a move he claimed was a political conspiracy by his enemies. His post as deputy premier has since been filled by Abdullah, one of the three incumbent vice presidents of UMNO.

But in the eyes of the UMNO rank and file, until he is duly elected as party deputy president, Abdullah has yet to be legitimately confirmed as Malaysia’s second-highest executive officer. Since rejoining UMNO nearly four years ago, Razaleigh has kept a low profile, quietly working behind the scenes to strengthen the party, especially with Kelantan remaining under the control of PAS.

But he could not help noticing that many UMNO members felt that the “no contest” ruling in the form of an “advice” rather than a “directive” had reaffirmed the status quo of the top party leadership, which ought to be reviewed particularly after the last general election where UMNO lost a lot of ground to PAS, despite the NF winning an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

Although they dared not say so openly, many members had blamed Mahathir for UMNO’s loss of 20 parliamentary seats nationwide.

Two options appear before Razaleigh as he floats the trial balloon. He could either contest the presidency against Mahathir or stake out the deputy presidency against Badawi. But that would have to depend on the number of nominations he can gather according to the electoral rules of UMNO.

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