Najib not dancing to Dr M’s tune … yet

(The Malaysian Insider) – Despite pressure from some powerful voices in Umno, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak still believes that the Barisan Nasional (BN) should not field a candidate in the Penanti by-election.

This decision is likely to displease Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and some other party officials but the Prime Minister has told Umno officials that it is time the ruling coalition stops becoming a player in the political pantomime crafted and staged by the Opposition.

During a closed-door briefing with Johor Umno on Sunday, Najib said he believes that Pakatan Rakyat’s (PR) strategy is to hold by-elections at regular intervals, thereby keeping the political temperature in the country bubbling and distracting the BN federal government from the important job of resuscitating the economy.

A senior Johor Umno official told The Malaysian Insider: “PM made the point that we just cannot go along and be a party to this Opposition strategy of having by-elections. We have to make a stand and say that we are not interested in these games.

“Of course if the by-election is caused by the death of the incumbent, that is a different issue. But if it caused by the resignation of Opposition lawmakers then BN’s position should be to give the by-election a miss.”

Many senior Johor Umno officials are backing Najib’s position on giving Penanti a miss and the party president is likely to make a similar pitch at the supreme council meeting this week.

He has said that he will be guided by the views of the BN component parties. The sentiment among BN officials is that Penanti will be difficult to snare from Pakatan Rakyat, given the fact that this state seat is in the Permatang Pauh constituency, Anwar Ibrahim’s stronghold.

In addition, it is an open secret that Umno in Permatang Pauh is split into three factions, creating doubts in the ruling party’s ability to muster an effective challenge on the ground.

BN officials know that a defeat in Penanti will give Pakatan Rakyat bragging rights as well as cement the view that the voter sentiment in West Malaysia is firmly with the Opposition.

Pakatan Rakyat has won all four by-elections held in peninsular Malaysia since the general elections in March last year- and all with increased majorities.

Still, the Mahathir camp believes that victory in Penanti is achievable. They have compiled a ground report which shows that the seat can be snared from the Opposition.

The former prime minister’s supporters have been using this report to persuade Umno officials that it would be a grave mistake to concede the seat without a fight.

On March 8 2008, Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s Fairus Khairuddin defeated BN’s Abdul Jalil Abdul Majid by 2,219 votes. Four years earlier, Abdul Jalil won the seat by 667 votes.

Fairus who has been tagged with allegations of corruption, resigned as the state assemblyman recently.

Dr Mahathir and his supporters argue that it would be demoralising for party workers if Umno/BN gives a walkover to PKR.

But party officials also know that Dr Mahathir may have a personal stake in this by-election. He despises Anwar and will hate to give him a free victory in his backyard.

Also, the former PM invited ridicule following BN’s defeats in Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau, with critics saying that he was a non-factor for voters despite campaigning in both constituencies.

But Najib’s supporters point out that while he is willing to listen to views from the former PM, the PM’s decision on Penanti will be based on feedback from a wider spectrum.

Malaysians have been watching the Najib administration closely, wondering whether Dr Mahathir will have a strong influence on decision-making and policies.

The jury is still out whether there is a return of Mahathirism but, at least on Iskandar Malaysia, Najib appears ready to distance himself from Dr Mahathir.

The former PM has objected strongly to the plan to develop south Johor into a global metropolis and has slammed the government for canvassing Singapore support for the project.

But over the weekend, Najib made clear that his administration is committed to making Iskandar a success and was not keen to engage in rhetoric. He also welcomed the involvement of foreign investors.

If he sticks to the decision not to field a candidate in Penanti, it could also be a signal to the rest of Malaysia that he may respect the former prime minister’s experience and views but will not be dancing to the veteran’s tune all the time.