Party riding on the coattails of Dr M

The two big guns have a cordial relationship – in public, at least – but the same cannot be said for the people around them.

Joceline Tan, The Star

IT has been a momentous year for Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad but the second time around as Prime Minister has not been the dream ride that many thought it would be.

In that sense, the Bersatu AGM starting tomorrow will find the party rank-and-file in a mixed mood – they are savouring the sweet taste of power while grappling with the heavy responsibility that comes with power.

The Bersatu chairman will be presiding over the gathering as the man who pulled off the near-impossible on May 9 and he will be lauded as a hero by his party.

Symbolism is important in politics and the party AGM is being held at no less than the convention centre in Putrajaya, the centre of power.

“They have come a long way in a short time. I can see them getting bigger and stronger in the coming year,” said political commentator Khaw Veon Szu.

Bersatu secretary-general Marzuki Yahya has told his circle of friends that he is expecting his party chairman to make some important announcements given that Bersatu is the leading party in Pakatan Harapan.

There is no point trying to second-guess Dr Mahathir because he writes his own speeches in longhand – no computer or laptop for him – and Marzuki has said that his boss is “not opening his briefcase until the big day”.

But the big man has been receiving feedback on the mood of the delegates.

For a start, they want him to stand on stage as a strong and firm Malay leader. Bersatu leaders down the line have been under pressure from the community for not standing up on issues close to the Malay heart.

Two recent issues that damaged Bersatu in the eyes of the Malays were the Hindu temple clashes that resulted in the death of Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim, and Icerd or the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Many of them were spooked by the mammoth anti-Icerd street protest.

Party leaders also breathed a sigh of relief on news that the post-mortem report on the deceased fireman is being held back till next month.

Given the gossip surrounding the post-mortem, the report would have cast a pall over the AGM.

The rank-and-file are also furious about the threat by Lim Kit Siang to pull his party out of Pakatan if the government abandoned the objectives of New Malaysia.

Bersatu read Lim’s statement as a form of political blackmail.

“My WhatsApp groups were on fire over this – every morning I woke up to about 2,000 messages in the group,” said Bersatu insider and photo-journalist Minaq Jinggo.

This may be one of the reasons why the party decided to keep the debates behind closed-doors.

They are worried that the speakers will lash out at other Pakatan leaders and even at their own ministers who have under-performed.

The market for Malay parties is pretty saturated and Bersatu leaders believe it is their right to take in members from any other party.

They believe Dr Mahathir needs the numbers to call the shots in Pakatan.

According to Khaw, Bersatu is quite well represented by the “sunset group” at one end and the youth or “sunrise group” at the other end but are weak at the middle tier.

“They lack suitable candidates to draw from if there is a Cabinet reshuffle.

“You can’t fault them for looking to Umno to get a stronger standing in Pakatan,” he said.

Their attempt to set up shop in Sabah and Sarawak has also run into opposition from the local political parties.

There were also rumours that Warisan president Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal was very unhappy and had threatened to retaliate if Bersatu came into Sabah.

Bersatu has had to pull the handbrake on their fishing trip in Umno waters for the time being.

But to go fishing in a party that they used to condemn as full of thieves, pirates and rubbish does not speak well of Bersatu.

It also does not speak well of the other Pakatan parties which had roared at Umno like lions but are now too compromised to stop Dr Mahathir.

The most forwarded caricature in recent weeks was one of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim picking up rubbish from the Port Dickson beaches while Dr Mahathir was collecting rubbish from Umno.

But over and above all this is the issue of the economy.

Bersatu leaders are deeply concerned about the rising cost of living, its impact on the Malay heartland and they are looking to Dr Mahathir for answers this weekend.

You can explain to the Klang Valley crowd why tolls could not be scrapped and petrol prices did not go down the day after Pakatan won.

But explaining that to the Malay heartland is more difficult and it has hindered Bersatu’s attempt to hold on to the Malay ground since May 9.

They have been taken aback by the criticism levelled against Pakatan leaders on social media. The kind of comments about them are the sort that used to be reserved for Barisan Nasional leaders.

A number of Bersatu ministers is also expected to be in the firing line at the AGM and they know who they are.

In short, Bersatu leaders are learning that it is fantastic to be in power but it was easier being the opposition.

Bersatu is still a long way from being the party of choice for the Malays.

It is possible the Anwar circle will be closely watching for hints on the succession issue. The Anwar circle is aware of the growing public opinion that he may miss the boat again.

The two big guns have a cordial relationship – in public, at least – but the same cannot be said for the people around them.

For instance, PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali who was performing the umrah, made news when he tweeted that he had prayed in Mecca for Dr Mahathir to live a long life.

Anwar is due to take over the hot seat by May 2020 and the only way to quell the doubts is a more specific transition plan.

But going by the Mahathir playbook, he likes to keep things close to his chest and the best way to keep the successor on his toes is to keep him in the dark.

However, the question in the minds of Bersatu delegates is not when or how Anwar will take over but how long their 93-year-old chairman can go on.

“Bersatu can gain momentum and grow for as long as Mahathir is their leader,” said Khaw.

Dr Mahathir is like a short candle blowing in the wind and his party wants to keep the candle blowing for as long as it takes.