Time to rein in state Umno chiefs

RECENT calls for Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to head Umno in several states have raised more questions about the party's health.

By Zubaidah Abu Bakar (NST)

Is Umno so fractured in these states and the rift between the factions and grassroots members so wide that no local leader can act as the unifying factor? Are there no capable leaders who can go head-to-head with the now fortified opposition in these states?

Or is it simply a case of "if I'm not the one then nobody else can take my place"?

Letting the party president or deputy president take charge may not be the answer to keeping harmony in the ranks. It might help appease some supporters as in Perak where Najib took over from Datuk Seri Tajol Rosli Ghazali and Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was made the deputy liaison chief just before the Barisan Nasional snatched the state government from Pakatan Rakyat.

Senior Umno national leaders have taken charge of "problematic states" before. Former president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had headed Kelantan Umno and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had led Terengganu.

Appointing state liaison chiefs is the prerogative of the Umno president and, by convention, the Umno menteris besar and chief ministers would usually be named. The argument is that the exclusion of menteris besar and chief ministers would impede the smooth running of the states.

Party sources said the Najib leadership is looking at changes in some states as part of the party's much-promised and much-needed reform exercise. Currently, the only Umno menteri besar who is not the state liaison chief is Datuk Seri Dr Md Isa Sabu of Perlis.

Former menteri besar Datuk Seri Shahidan Kassim continues to head Perlis Umno after the palace appointed Isa as menteri besar last year, causing uneasiness among the rival supporters. Shahidan is now willing to relinquish the post, but not to Isa. He wants Muhyiddin to take charge instead.

This came after Isa backed a suggestion by Malacca Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam that the chairmanship of the state Umno liaison committees should be held by the menteris besar or chief ministers.

But does Perlis, which has only three divisions and is the only Malay belt state that has never been controlled by Pas, need Muhyiddin to keep the state party together?

It is learnt that Kedah Umno is also keen on Muhyiddin taking over from Datuk Seri Mahdzir Khalid for no other reason than to ensure Kedah Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Azizan Razak of Pas has less with which to attack the party deputy president.

Umno divisions in Selangor meanwhile want Najib to take charge of the weakened state Umno.

Selangor Umno information chief Datuk Abdul Rahman Palil said Najib was the right person to take over from Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib in the Pakatan-controlled state in view of Muhammad's defeat in the recent party elections.

While there have been no requests from Terengganu, Pahang and Negri Sembilan Umno for the top two leaders to head the states, the idea has been floated by grassroots leaders concerned over frictions and rifts between the state bosses and party members. They cite the case of Kelantan Umno where internal rivalries have contributed to Pas' ability to hold on to the state since 1990.

Umno's weaknesses in most states have largely been attributed to the presence of certain personalities in the party, and the persistent influence of so-called "warlords".

The ongoing power struggle in Terengganu where eight Umno representatives stayed away from the state assembly in a move widely speculated as a bid to unseat Menteri Besar Datuk Ahmad Said is a classic situation needing the intervention of national leaders.

The eight, who are part of the 24 BN representatives in the 32-seat assembly, are said to have absented themselves due to allegedly threatening SMSes some of them received, and could embarrass Umno if they are not pacified.

The inability of state party leaders to resolve their differences means that Umno will have to clear the decks, including allowing senior national leaders to take charge of the problematic states.

This is inevitable as Umno has to rejuvenate the morale of party members and convince sceptics that the respective state Umno is determined to bring about change for the better.