A power challenge between the top two men in Umno - Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin - is becoming visible, and at the division level, which is the heart of the party, battle lines are beginning to be drawn.
On Friday, an early signal was set off in Terengganu, where existing infighting between rival factions led by Mentri Besar Ahmad Said and his predecessor Idris Jusoh has worsened.
“This is classic Umno smokescreen. They may attack Pakatan Rakyat, but the real disorder is in Umno itself. It is traditionally well-known for power grabbing and it is the warlords there who will actually broker who forms the national leadership,” Kuala Terengganu MP Wahid Endut told Malaysia Chronicle.
The Umno brouhaha began when four Terengganu assemblymen snubbed Muhyiddin during the opening of the Setiu division meeting. Their unprecedented boldness immediately sparked speculation the boycott had broader implications - perhaps, right up to the national level rather than just infighting amongst state leaders.
Of late, rumblings have grown louder that Muhyiddin was preparing to oust Najib. Terengganu is under the direct care of Najib's cousin Hishammuddin Hussein, who was tasked to resolve the Ahmad Said-Idrish Jusoh conflict.
When asked for his reaction, Hishammuddin slammed the four assemblyman for not rising above state politics and showing disrespect to the DPM. Yet just last month, the Umno vice president had insisted the internal bickering in Terengganu was under control.
“"This is not our way of doing things. We should respect the person opening the meeting, more so when it is Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin,” Bernama reported Hishammuddin as saying.
Muhyiddin himself has publicly voiced his unhappiness over the incident.
Aligned to whom
The recalcitrant assemblymen were were Jabi representative Ramlan Ali, Permaisuri’s Abdul Halim Jusoh, Langkap’s Asha’ari Idris and Batu Rakit’s Khazan Che Mat. All were previously believed to be aligned to Idris Jusoh, but Umno watchers say they may have switched over to the Ahmad Said camp.
“Asha’ari and Khazan were recently appointed to the state executive council by Ahmad Said. So the talk is that they are now with the MB and are trying to encourage Ramlan and Halim to do the same,” a veteran Umno watcher told Malaysia Chronicle.
"Both Ahmad Said and Idris will insist they are Najib's men. But that is only if he remains in power. Of the two, perhaps Ahmad Said has the more reason to stay loyal to Najib."
Followers of Idris Jusoh, controversial for having launched a slew of quick but under-performing development programs during his time in power, are perceived to be unhappy with Najib and Hishammuddin for continuing to support Ahmad Said, who also has the backing of the Terengganu Sultan.
Ahmad Said, on the other hand, is believed to be grateful to the PM for standing by him despite the lack of progress made in Terengganu since he took over from Idris in 2008.
Can Umno change under Muhyiddin
Other Umno leaders who have rushed to slam the rudeness shown to Muhyiddin include supreme council member Ahmad Shabery Cheek. "Whatever excuse they may give, when the Deputy Prime Minister comes to officiate at the meeting, such action can be perceived as a boycott," Shabery said.
Muhyiddin has the backing of former premier Mahathir Mohamad. He has been keen to portray himself as a champion of the Malay community, although his racial rhetoric directly contradicts the multiracial undertones of Najib’s 1Malaysia platform.
Apart from Hishammuddin, other senior Umno leaders who have publicly expressed support for Najib include Minister in the PM’s Department Nazri Aziz and Umno Youth Chief Khairy Jamaluddin.
Khairy, in a verbal spat with Kelantan Umno's Tengku Razaleigh, had mentioned a coup going on in the party. But even so, Razaleigh is unlikely to support any side that has strong links to his arch enemy Mahathir, even though he had challenged and lost to Najib in the 2009 contest for the Umno presidency.
"Umno is going through tough times. The grassroots are putting the blame on the top leadership and this is correct because their leaders have not been able to reform the party or to take it forward. It is now weaker than before," the Umno watcher said.
"But if Muhyiddin beats Najib, will it make Umno better? For the first few months, Muhyiddin may be able to give the impression of a more united Umno under him. But actually, Umno will be setting itself up for complete extinction because Muhyiddin has even less vision than Najib. He is only riding on Malay sentiments and Mahathir, and by now it is quite obvious, Mahathir is the root cause to the big problems in Malaysia today."- Malaysia Chronicle