More fresh faces this time around?

The hunt for general election candidates has started. Anticipation on who will make the cut is high in Umno, with many expecting significant changes in the lineup, writes ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD

New Straits Times

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WHEN an Umno committee rejected the proposed names of two long-serving party stalwarts from representing a northern state in this year's party assembly debates, it caused a stir in the rank and file.

To some, it was an indirect "signal" that the two veterans might not be favoured as candidates in the general election. This triggered more talk on who else could be making way for fresh faces in the state.

In Terengganu, there is talk that new faces could make up to 40 per cent of candidates in the Umno line-up.

There's also speculation in several other states that extensive changes could be on the way.

Umno is gearing up for a likely early general election many believe will happen possibly as early as the first quarter of next year.

The party, which is the largest Barisan Nasional component in the Dewan Rakyat with 110 seats — enough for a simple majority in the 219-seat parliament — is identifying potential candidates for the polls.

All state Umno branches will be submitting a list of potential candidates to party president and BN chairman Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

It explains the growing interest on who will make the cut, but something else is driving suspicions of sweeping changes in the candidate slate.

Some believe the members of parliament and state assemblymen, who stood in the general election in 2004, were a "transitional" line-up for Abdullah.

They expect the coming polls — Abdullah's second as leader — to give him a freer hand.

"The 2004 election presented a handicap for Abdullah. He had to maintain a balance between the old and the new to ensure continuity," says Alor Star Umno division committee member Guntor Tobeng.

"Now, we need to put up a group of candidates whom Pak Lah feels can really deliver and meet his criteria."

Perak's Lumut division chief, Datuk Zambry Abd Kadir, agrees.

"I think many of us feel that this is the best opportunity for the party president to review the existing state and federal Umno line-up."

How much change is possible?

There is no quota for new faces. Umno officials from various states, though, note that roughly 20 to 30 per cent of the Umno line-up is changed in each general election.

The possibility of more change this time is firing the imagination of many on what the new team could look like. One particularly strong call is for more younger candidates.

One of the most vocal Umno figures pushing for this is Federal Territories Umno Youth chief Datuk Mohamad Norza Zakaria.

His reasoning is that seven out of 10 Malaysians are under 40.

Younger MPs and assemblymen, he argues, are needed to better reflect this reality.

This cohort — at times referred to as the "New Economic Policy" generation — is represented to some extent in the leadership of government-linked companies and in the private sector.

Norza feels they are still not adequately represented in the parliament and state assemblies.

"In the 1999 line-up, we only had one MP (Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor, Tampin MP) and 12 state assemblymen under 40, including Selangor Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo."

The situation now is better. Though most MPs are mainly in their 50s and 60s, Umno fielded nine MPs aged 40 and below in the 2004 general election.

In any case, a bigger pool of younger elected representatives, who are in their mid-30s and early 40s, would be handy, say proponents, as it would take a few terms to groom MPs into potential cabinet members.

But it isn't just more "youthful" Yang Berhormat that some are asking for in the coming line-up.

Others are urging Umno to field more women candidates, more highly educated and articulate candidates, more urbane candidates, more gender-sensitive candidates — the list goes on.

These partly reflect the rising expectations of a maturing electorate. Meeting all these expectations isn't easy, however, due to a host of complex issues that come into play in the selection of a candidate.

Political observer and academic Prof Datuk Shamsul Amri Baharuddin cites cases where elected representatives repeatedly uttered highly charged or insensitive remarks, or build palatial mansions that flout regulations of local authorities.

"They are 'problematic' Yang Berhormat, because their actions or words cause problems to party leaders who end up having to do most of the explaining.

"Other than that, they are hardworking, they are popular with their constituents and they hold the keys to influence in their local divisions.

"So should the party deal with them?"

Candidates have also been known to get short-listed based on the strategic considerations of their particular state Umno.

For Umno, the challenge to find candidates able to meet as many of these requirements as possible is further compounded in Malay belt states such as Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan.

"These are states where the sense of localisation is high, where candidates, especially for state assembly seats, often need to have strong family connections in the constituency in order to gain voters' acceptance," says Sobri Sudin from Yayasan Sumber Maklumat or Information Resource Foundation, a think-tank. In some mainly Malay constituencies, it isn't just local family ties that are important, but religious credentials as well.

A typical example is Kedah's Baling parliamentary seat. It took Datuk Dr Mashitah Ibrahim, a PhD holder in Islamic studies representing the BN, to defeat the well-known ulama Taib Azamuddin Md Taib from Pas in 2004.

The growth of "fence-sitters" among the electorate over the years poses another challenge.

In a growing number of seats, the undecided make up as much as 60 per cent of the voters.

Get the candidate wrong for whatever reason, and that, say party observers, could create an unnecessary neck-and-neck race with Pas even before other factors such as campaign issues or the strength of the parties contesting come into play.

These ground realities and shifts in the electorate make it increasingly difficult to apply a "one size fits all" criteria in the selection of candidates.

"Abdullah sets the general criteria for the candidates he wants through his policies and speeches, but at the end of the day, the list of names that will be submitted for his decision will be coloured and tempered by all these considerations," says Shamsul.

Herein lies the biggest challenge for Umno in the remaining weeks and months ahead — to propose to Abdullah a properly balanced line-up of "electable" candidates who not only meet the ground requirements but who can effect as much positive change as possible in the next five years.

Pulling this off will be no mean feat. Some of the more eager incumbents and aspirants are leaving nothing to chance.

Several of the more senior ones, says Guntor, have been "reminding" their colleagues in the party that they are fit and able to continue serving.

Others organised numerous dinners during last month's Umno assembly, seen at times as an indirect means of communicating their interest to other party members.

There are also those who opted for the direct approach, lobbying party leaders personally. So much so that even Abdullah has called for a stop to such tactics.

Asked about the matter early this month, the prime minister said some incumbent elected representatives had been lobbying for the past two months.

Perhaps this is a reflection of the perception of some aspirants that the general election is getting closer.