KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 25 — While 3.4 million Umno members returned Datuk Seri Najib Razak as its leader last Saturday during party nominations, who gets voted into the second echelon will determine the political future of the country.
"The veeps and the Supreme Council are gaining in influence because these are the people who are going to be managing the membership and explain to the grassroots whatever decisions are made by the leadership," Khoo Kay Peng told The Malay Mail Online, referring to Umno's three vice-presidents and the party's powerful 25-man top leadership council.
However, the three incumbent vice-presidents, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal are seen as Najib loyalists.
Challenging them are party veterans Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, and Kedah Mentri Besar Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir – all seen to be representative of Umno's old guard.
Khoo believes that the outcome of the vice-presidential contest will determine whether Najib will be able to continue with the reformist agenda he has laid out over the past few years as prime minister or send the party – and by extension, the government – back to its conservative Malay stance.
In other words, Umno's political present and the country's political future will be very much determined by the winners of this contest.
Just last week, Najib announced over RM31 billion in economic aid, loans and programmes for the dominant Bumiputera community, of which the Malays form a huge chunk, exactly a week before Umno's nomination for party elections was held.
The announcement also came after a barrage of criticism and demands from pro-Umno blogs and organisations over the preceding weeks, urging the 60-year-old son of second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein to reward the Malays and Bumiputeras for their support in the recent national polls.
"Signs are pointing towards Umno potentially focusing on its own support base. They are looking at survival first, and I don't think there is any indication they are going to go in a big way to win back multiracial support," Khoo said.
Dr Sivamurugan Pandian, a political scientist attached with Universiti Sains Malaysia, is of the opinion that Umno will likely hunker down and consolidate its Malay support base but noted that it is to be expected as party members look to maintaining stability in Umno, and in BN as a whole.
He also thinks that the outcome of the vice-presidential race will be definitive of Umno's future direction, but does not believe that Najib was in any way pressured to devote a lot more attention to the Bumiputera community of late.
"I don't think he is being pressured by Umno. This is an agenda he wants to have for the Bumiputeras and Malays," the Penang-based university lecturer told The Malay Mail Online.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political analyst Datuk Dr Shamsul Amri Baharuddin echoed Sivamurugan's sentiments, saying that the results of the recent general election was impetus enough for Najib to act on his own in "rewarding" the Malays after spending millions of ringgit to woo Chinese and Indian voters.
"The least of the group he wooed and persuaded gave him the mandate to rule. He doesn't need to be pressured to reward this group," Shamsul Amri said via email, referring to the Bumiputera community.
"Najib just demonstrated publicly what a 'fair dinkum' spirit means. He has set the future tone: that he shall continue to reward both those who continue to support or not support him, in varying degrees and quantums," he added.
This year's party polls will be a first for Umno, as some 146,500 delegates will be allowed to take part in direct elections for their top leaders following amendments to the party constitution that opened up voting to a much larger group of members.
Previously, only 2,500 delegates were given the privilege to elect party leaders.
Elections for the Youth, Wanita and Puteri wings are scheduled to take place on October 12 while the vice-presidential and Supreme Council elections are slated for October 19.