KUALA LUMPUR, June 18 — Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi may be the Umno president, but the fact that his predecessor Datuk Seri Najib Razak continues to loom large over the former has invited questions of who truly heads the party.
According to Umno information chief Shahril Hamdan, however, the Malay nationalist party has no issue with having two apparent leaders and he discounted suggestions it was a sign of factionalism in Umno that has now birthed at least four offshoots.
When asked if Najib’s prominence was an obstacle to Zahid’s effective stewardship of the party, Shahril disagreed and said it was rather an indication of the depth in the ranks of Umno’s leaders.
“No, Umno is blessed with a number of strong personalities that have their own personal brand, their own personal popularity but a lot of their independent popularity has often been overblown or misinterpreted as there being tension.
“But rather I think everyone is able to speak to one another. We’ve seen photos of meetings, we see all of those things indicate that, actually, the individuals themselves get along,’’ he told Malay Mail in a recent interview.
Najib resigned as the president of Umno in the aftermath of the 2018 general election ostensibly to concentrate on defending himself against the corruption and money-laundering charges that remain in court today.
Zahid won the subsequent election to replace Najib but soon landed in his own legal troubles that also stemmed from allegations of money laundering and abuse.
He stepped back and yielded his authority to deputy president Datuk Mohamad Hasan for about seven months before reclaiming his position in July last year.
Hasan, commonly referred to as Tok Mat, is another prominent leader who has not always appeared to be wholly in tune with his president, but Shahril also brushed this aside as a sign of lively and respectful discourse within the party.
“I'm sure there are disagreements here and there but that is a healthy set of things to have. In terms of the party structure, it is clear that the party president is at the top and Tok Mat Hasan is the deputy,” he explained.
“These two run the show but if there is any key policy decision, obviously the president has the final say together with the supreme council as a whole.
“I think that’s not a big thing that’s happening. It is just right now we have a few personalities that are really strong and have big followership but that doesn't translate into tension,’’ he said.
Yet despite surface appearances, Umno at least still seemed more unified than offshoot rival-turned-ally Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Bersatu is mired in a civil war between president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and disputed chairman Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, whose factions have gone with the ruling Perikatan Nasional and the ousted Pakatan Harapan coalitions, respectively.
However, Umno’s unexpected return to power without even having to face an election could test the party’s cohesion against the existence of both a party president in name and a party leader in effect.
While leadership roles when Umno had been an Opposition party meant only responsibilities, the same in PN where Umno is a part of the government, brought access to real power and resources.
Already, there are some sections within Umno that have floated the idea of Najib’s return as the head of the party to chart its campaign for the 15th general election.
The idea was also not without merit, as Najib has developed a “bulletproof” quality that inexplicably allowed him to thrive politically despite charges and allegations stemming from the 1MDB global corruption scandal.
Since leading Barisan Nasional to its unprecedented general election defeat in May 2018, Najib has also reinvented himself as a Malay hero of sorts and seen his popularity soar despite the unresolved slew of corruption and money laundering charges laid against him.
The true extent of his popularity would have been tested in the Chini by-election on July 4, as the state constituency falls under his Pekan federal seat.
However, Najib will not get a chance to fully flex his influence in the contest as the only viable rival, PKR, has said it will not field a candidate in the race.
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