The fight for the final Umno VP spot, and Najib’s reforms

Zubaidah Abu Bakar, TMI

As 146,000 Umno delegates vote in the party polls today, attention will be on the race for the final vice-presidential slot as both Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal are seen as shoo-ins for two of the three spots.

At risk is Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein’s rising seniority in the party and his cousin and party president Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s leadership and reform agenda.

Party insiders say Najib needs Hishammuddin to be a vice-president, not just to continue a family legacy but more as an assurance of support should there be retaliation from the Mahathir faction in Umno against his leadership in future.

Hishammudin’s defeat would mean one less Najib loyalist in Umno’s powerful decision-making supreme council.

In his own defence, the 52-year-old has been meeting party grassroots leaders in the past week, trying to convince them of his relevance to the Umno top echelon after unfavourable ground reports on his chances in the six-cornered fight.

Umno sources believed he might just scrape through now that his campaign had been boosted with the help of Najib and senior leaders like Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and Wanita chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil, among others.

Najib has been adamant about keeping Zahid, Shafie and Hishammuddin in their posts to ensure continuity of his reform agenda, which has been derailed by repeated pandering to the party’s right wing.

It is understood that he has personally made phone calls and met some division chiefs to get them to help maintain the status quo in the 3.5 million-strong party.

Would anyone reject a favour asked by the party chief to keep an unpopular leader?

Party insiders say division chiefs are aware some delegates are not happy with Hishammuddin’s performance as minister and Umno leader but they also do not want to risk their relations with Najib.

A state Umno leader said division chiefs who are MPs will make sure delegates from their divisions vote for the incumbents for fear of being sidelined in a much anticipated Cabinet reshuffle said to take place soon after the party elections.

“They fear that if their divisions do not toe the line, they might be out should Najib reshuffle his Cabinet,” said the division chief on condition of anonymity.

Najib is not worried about Zahid and Shafie as both look set to be re-elected.

The Home Minister has remained the popular choice since day one because his no-nonsense way of handling political opponents and crime plays well in Umno.

Votes that are going to Sabah chieftain Shafie are seen as a reward for the state’s strong support of Barisan Nasional in the last general election.