Najib’s big challenge

While Najib is unopposed as party president, there is some speculation as to whether he could be prevented from becoming the Prime Minister. By convention, he should, but under Malaysia's law, Abdullah can actually hang on.

The Malaysian Insider

Anyone trying to look into the crystal ball for Malaysia 2009 will see a very murky picture. The political tumult caused by the March general election last year has yet to calm down. This year will see more upheavals, but against the backdrop of an increasingly gloomy economic environment.

Some experts have described 2008's political convulsions as the birth pangs of a democracy or the start of a two-coalition system, but others see it as a downward spiral into chaos.

Deputy Premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak is slated to take over as Prime Minister after the Umno general assembly in March. But there will be no honeymoon for him, as Malaysians have grown impatient with incessant politicking.

Najib's honeymoon ended as soon as it became clear that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi could no longer hold on to his position. Suddenly, the Deputy Premier found himself accused of corruption and alleged involvement in a murder case.

He has stoutly defended his innocence, but the attacks are unlikely to go away.

The early part of the year will see furious political activity as Umno enters its final leg of internal elections due in March.

Najib is unopposed for the president's post, but one can expect fierce jockeying for other posts down the line.

The deputy president's post, which will be a three-way fight, will be closely watched as the winner will become, by convention, Malaysia's deputy premier.

The best-qualified candidate, International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, is not as popular in the party as his rivals for the post — Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Ali Rustam, and Rural and Regional Development Minister Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib.

He does not have their level of grassroots support but the party's choice will signal whether it has its own interests or national interests at heart.

It will be seen as a signal of whether Umno has woken up to the need for an overhaul after voters abandoned the Barisan Nasional in last year's election.

Months later, Umno members do not seem to recognise that the party's deepening insularity, arrogance and disconnect from the ground have driven supporters away. It continues to shoot itself in the foot with unpopular policies such as the refusal to even review the controversial Internal Security Act and its members' racist remarks and blunders.

The Umno elections will show whether the party wants more of the same or is willing to reform. Will they vote in the liberal voices of reform, or those who prefer to be insular? It matters because these leaders traditionally hold senior government posts.

While Najib is unopposed as party president, there is some speculation as to whether he could be prevented from becoming the Prime Minister. By convention, he should, but under Malaysia's law, Abdullah can actually hang on.

This speculation persists, despite Abdullah's repeated assurances that he is stepping down.

To quell such talk, Abdullah needs to set an exact date for the handover.

If and after he becomes Malaysia's sixth prime minister, Najib will have to wrestle with huge challenges. He will need to unite Umno and soothe Malay fears, while fortifying an anaemic Barisan Nasional.

Both tasks, however, may not be mutually compatible. And the opposition will give him no room to breathe.

Although opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim's credibility has been dented after he failed to topple the government as he threatened, he is not likely to give up.

He may have switched focus for now to Sarawak, which is due to call an election in 2011. But there is talk that the state government may want to hold it this year, and Anwar has been visiting the state regularly.

If elections are indeed held then, it will be the battle of the year.

But it will not be the first. That honour goes to Kuala Terengganu, which has called a by-election for Jan 17, after Umno MP Razali Ismail died last November.

It will pit Umno against Pas — a war for the hearts of the heartland Malays and for the Chinese who make up about 10 per cent of the voter base. It will be the first by-election where both sides are without an incumbent's advantage.

Amid all these, the government has to attend to the economy. Growth may dip to as low as 0.5 per cent in 2009 from an expected 5 to 6 per cent in 2008, according to experts.

All macro-economic indicators are down, including commodity prices, manufacturing output and tourist arrivals, which make up the three biggest sectors of the economy.

Najib, who is also Finance Minister, has announced a RM7 billion stimulus package to offset lower exports and consumer spending but experts have said it is inadequate.

New measures are expected to be announced early this year.

Najib has his work cut out for him, even before he becomes Prime Minister. — The Straits Times

Key dates to note

Jan 17: It is by-election day in Kuala Terengganu. This is Malaysia's second by-election since the March 2008 general election, the first being in Permatang Pauh, Penang, which opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim won by a landslide. This time, however, it will be too close to call. Umno will be up against Pas. Umno won the seat the last time by a very tight margin.

February: The Barisan Nasional convention is the first such convention for the ruling coalition. It was proposed some time in the middle of last year, after the BN partners kept quarrelling among themselves as each of the 13 members sought to regain credibility with voters.

Mid-year: Pas elections. The party has been split into factions over differences on whether to work closer with Anwar. There is an old-school group that is wary of him, while some also prefer closer ties to Umno. The elections will determine whether the modernists or old-school faction will prevail. The sensitive issue of hudud, or the Islamic penal code, recently resurfaced after Pas senior leader Datuk Husam Musa was forced to take a stand on it. Pas maintains that hudud will be part of Malaysia's law if it takes power, but this could spook its political partners.

No date fixed yet: Anwar's sodomy trial. The case is still at the preliminary stage, but a full hearing is expected this year. If found guilty, Anwar could be sentenced to a long jail term that could severely dent his political comeback.