Umno leaders’ embrace at party congress spells trouble for Anwar

(South China Morning Post) KUALA LUMPUR, March 30 – The past, present and future prime ministers of Malaysia put years of backstabbing and badmouthing aside when they embraced at the Umno party’s congress – and that could spell trouble for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

It was a stunning moment of public unity for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad and incoming leader Najib Razak, a trio whose brawling has been a boon for the opposition.

The moment came on Saturday after Dr Mahathir – who resigned from the United Malays National Organisation in 2007 out of anger with Abdullah – walked into the venue with his wife, Dr Siti Hasmah.

Abdullah was winding up proceedings on the final day of the five-day congress of the party, which has dominated Malaysian politics.

The delegates cheered the elderly couple and Abdullah, repeatedly labelled “good for nothing” by Dr Mahathir, saw them coming. He praised Dr Mahathir as a great leader – and invited him up on stage. Dr Mahathir formally shook hands with his successor, but Abdullah broke the ice, pulling Dr Mahathir in and embracing him warmly. Najib joined them in the embrace – and delegates went wild.

The Malay language Mingguan Malaysia ran the photograph under the banner headline: “Finally, united again!”.

Denison Jayasooria, political scientist at the National University of Malaysia, said the moment may prove vital.

“I think their rapprochement is for real, and has been forced on them by the political realities that Umno is politically retreating and also because the Umno grass roots are demanding they close rank,” he said.

“From here on, they will consolidate and train their guns on Anwar … Anwar is the key, he is the glue that is holding the opposition together.”

Anwar, who goes on trial for sodomy this month, was repeatedly attacked during the Umno meeting.

Former Umno youth wing leader Hishamuddin Hussein led the charge last Tuesday, accusing him of various “crimes” including criticism of Malaysia’s royal families, generating negative media reports in the international press and tarnishing the country in foreign forums.

Najib, who is taking over as prime minister on Thursday, lambasted Anwar’s morality.

“As opposition leader he claims to be as innocent as angels …  like a newborn baby, but we know who he really is,” Najib said, without naming Anwar.

Tian Chua, a senior leader in Anwar’s Keadilan party, said the repeated targeting of Anwar was “sad”.

“They demonised him, and made veiled threats of entrapment and imprisonment,” he said, adding that he believed the rise of Najib would herald a new era of repression.

Chua cited a recent ban on two opposition publications, the suspension of opposition lawmakers and police action to break up opposition rallies as examples of the hardline policies favoured by Najib.

“Repression will worsen after Najib takes power,” he said. “Anwar is prepared for the worst.”

Umno will face its next electoral test on April 7, with three simultaneous by-elections. In Bukit Gantang in Perak state, a seat in the national assembly is up for grabs. The other races are for state legislature seats.

Some 15,000 opposition supporters and 5,000 from the ruling National Front coalition turned out yesterday to nominate their candidates.