Umno hawks sharpening their claws

The Umno conservatives are not happy with Najib as they see his reform agenda as a weakness.

KUALA LUMPUR: Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s reforms have not gone down well with Umno’s conservatives, who form the party’s power base.

High ranking officials told FMT that the Umno hawks disprove of Najib’s pledges to improve civil liberties which they saw as a sign of “excessive leniency”.

The starting point to the growing “silent revolt” began with Najib’s economic liberalisation promises that saw him vowing to open up key sectors to non-Malay ownership.

It is understood that many Umno hardliners had accepted Najib’s rationale behind the move on the basis of his vows to preserve Bumiputera interests in businesses.

But the trust soon eroded following his recent move to implement bold political reforms.

According to one party leader, Umno hawks failed to see the positive side of the move but instead perceived it to be pandering to opposition demands, an alien scenario in its history as the ruling class.

The reforms included the planned abolition of the Internal Security Act which allows detention without trial which party conservatives believe is key to “maintaining order” and drafting a law to allow street rallies.

Anwar’s verdict

Things got worse when the Najib administration allowed opposition supporters to gather outside the court compound on Monday for PKR de facto chief Anwar Ibrahim’s verdict on his sodomy trial.

“Many thought the rally should not have been allowed. It made us (Umno) look like we had softened up when we were so adamant not to allow such protests to take place in the past,” a party leader said.

About 5,000 people had gathered outside the court in a peaceful rally that saw protesters celebrating jubilantly the verdict that freed Anwar from the sodomy charge.

Analysts said the trial outcome placed Malaysian politics on a level playing field as the uncertainties that once threatened to weaken the opposition has been removed.

And while Umno leaders maintain that it has never interfered with the judiciary, ironically, many blamed Najib for Anwar’s acquittal, describing it as weak leadership similar to the governance of his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

“Yes its not connected (Najib and the court’s verdict) but somehow Umno conservatives blame Najib for it. They believe his leniency in dealing with the opposition had influenced the court’s verdict,” said another party leader.

Abdullah’s ascend to power was marked by promises of reform and a crusade against graft. Although he was seen to have failed in delivering, observers credited the more politically open environment as his legacy.

The significant opposition gain in Elections 2008 was attributed to this new political environment and ultimately was blamed by Umno hawks as the reason behind the ruling coalition’s dismal performance.

As Umno and its allies in Barisan Nasional face a tough task of regaining a parliamentary two-third advantage, party hardliners believe this softened image would not be accepted well by the conservative Malay voters.

The party leader said Malay voter sentiment is now widely influenced by the “Perkasa ideology” – a right wing philosophy of zero tolerance for opposition politics which is seen as anti-Malay and a threat to the ethnic majority rights.

Should this sentiment prevail, it could be a blow to Najib’s election preparations. Poor performance in the 13th general election could well spark another coup in Umno similar to the one that shortened Abdullah’s reign.

But the same party leader said the future is not that bleak for the premier. The political reform pledges could also be a blessing in disguise as party tacticians believe it would appeal to a large chunk of young fence sitters.

“And once the projects under his (Najib) programmes begin to bear fruits , it will definitely win more hearts but this requires time,” the Umno man contended.

But observers believe Najib may call for an election as early as March to stay ahead of a weakening economy and discord within his own party which means time is not on the premier’s side.

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