By-elections a test of Dr M’s clout

By Pauline Ng (Business Times Singapore)

APRIL 6 – Over the weekend, Mahathir Mohamad returned to the fold of Umno after a near one-year absence.

His great disappointment, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had finally exited the prime minister’s office after handing over the baton to his successor Najib Razak, who was sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth premier last Friday.

Despite leaving the party in a huff last year because he could not stomach Abdullah’s leadership, Dr Mahathir has made clear that his affection for the party that he had led for 22 years remains undiminished.

Najib and Umno – the dominant party in the coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) – are now counting on the 83-year-old party icon to rally the troops and act as the trump card for fence sitters at three simultaneous by-elections – one parliamentary and two state seats – taking place tomorrow.

Local media have observed how quickly the indefatigable octogenarian has swung into action over the weekend, running in between states to press the flesh and reinforce the message that BN would look after their interests best.

That Dr Mahathir is set to play a significant role in the new administration – whether in an official or unofficial capacity – appears inevitable.

It was evident in the way Najib made a special point of turning to acknowledge the presence of his senior upon walking into the Throne Room of the palace last Friday where he took his oath of office before the King, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin. Dr Mahathir returned the gesture with a slight nod of his own.

Najib has said that he intends to seek his advice, as well as that of Abdullah – a point that the straight-talking Dr Mahathir observed made little sense since he and Abdullah hold such different perspectives.

Taking a leaf out of Dr Mahathir’s book, Najib also saw fit to release 13 who were detained under the country’s Internal Security Act, reminiscent of Dr Mahathir’s executive act of setting free 21 detainees when he became premier.

Perhaps having witnessed the fury unleashed on a hapless Abdullah by the wrath of a Dr Mahathir scorned, Najib prefers to keep the latter’s counsel.

Or perhaps he truly admires the tight ship that the elder man ran during his two-decade-plus rule.

Consulting him on the future composition of his Cabinet could be scraping the bottom of the barrel, however. Many of the present Cabinet are past their ministerial prime, throwbacks from Dr Mahathir’s era, a number even perceived to be tainted. They were ministers that Abdullah lacked the will to reject for fear of offending his predecessor.

Even so, the results of the three by-elections could provide a guide as to whether Dr Mahathir’s influence is still strong or on the wane.

Much has been made of Umno and BN’s resurgence following the leadership change.

In the days leading to the polls, BN appears to have chipped away at the support of opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) in the two seats of Bukit Gantang in Perak and Bukit Selambau in Kedah.

PR previously held the two seats and had looked set to repeat their wins. Most pundits think they are still likely to make it.

In the Batang Ai seat, BN is fighting tooth and nail, fully aware that defeat – or even a result that goes down to the wire – could set the wheels in motion for PR to emerge as strong contenders in state-wide elections due by 2011.

Despite Najib’s contention that the by-elections are not a referendum of his leadership, there is no denying that the BN needs to show a win after suffering two consecutive by-election drubbings in Permatang Pauh, Penang and Kuala Terengganu.

Should BN win either or both of the ‘Bukit seats’, much will be made of Najib’s role as the new captain.

But expect Dr Mahathir to also be credited. If so, chances are his influence on Najib and Umno will grow rather than be diminished.

Indeed, there is much riding on Tuesday’s results.