By Murray Hunter

BANGKOK, Thailand--While everyone is focused on the electoral battle now going on in Johor, there is another much more important clandestine battle going on. This is the battle for UMNO leadership.

There is strong sentiment on the hustings that UMNO, along with its BN partners are going to do very well in the March 12 state election. The results will define the dominant Malay party, and force the opposition to re-combine in another way, due to the almost certain PKR thrashing.

However, the glitz of newcomers like Syed Saddiq’s MUDA, Mahathir’s Perjuang, and Warisan also making a guest appearance, is hiding something that will be even more important than the coming general election, due by the third quarter of next year.

There is a campaign going on within the Johor state election campaign. This is the struggle to prove who should be, and will be the natural leader of UMNO.

Convicted felon and former prime minister Najib Razak has been enthusiastically campaigning and drawing massive crowds along his whistle stops around Johor. With 4.6 million followers on Facebook, Najib yesterday made a post saying “Maszlee, I’m at Simpang Renggam '', showing his audaciousness.

Mahathir Mohamed, fresh out of the National Heart Institute after treatment, has also gone to the hustings in Johor telling voters not to elect “crooks and thieves as leaders of government’, taking direct aim at Najib.

However, this may work counterintuitively. Najib’s media advisors have successfully reframed his persona to rural voters, at least, as someone politically hounded by Mahathir. 

The ‘Malu apa Bossku’ (Shy about what?) persona seems to transcend the countless commentators and articles written about the immorality and bad deeds of Najib.

Being a convicted felon, and out on bail pending an appeal that the Najib legal forces are trying to delay as long as possible, makes this a high stakes game. Not just for Najib, but UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is facing a long list of charges himself.

Both Muhyiddin Yassin and his successor Ismail Sabri Yacoob have not given them the ‘get out of jail' card they wanted. Ideally, Najib wanted his appeal upheld, and Zahid charges dropped. 
This isn’t happening and time will eventually run out, where they both face jail time, if Zahid is also convicted. Rumor has it that they also tried to do a deal with Anwar Ibrahim, at Pakatan. This obviously didn’t happen.

The UMNO party election may become a political ‘bloodsport’

Negeri Sembilan assembly person, UMNO deputy president and BN electoral chief Mohamed Hasan, known as Tok Mat is pushing for an early general election. Tok Mat issued a challenge to prime minister Ismail Sabri to convince the Yang Di-Puan Agong to dissolve the parliament or resign. Tok Mat is also credited as saying whether UMNO performs well or poorly in the Johor state election, there should be an early federal election.

Pro Ismail Sabri cybertroopers are claiming Tok Mat has disrespected the Agong, while pro-Najib/Zahid cybertroopers are stepping up their war on Ismail Sabri’s performance as prime minister. In effect Najib and Zahid have become the nation’s covert opposition. 
There is even a step up in the leakage of information attacking Ismail Sabri confidants like minister of health, Khairy Jamaluddin for his handling of the vaccine rollout. 
International trade and industry minister, Mohamed Azmin Ali is under attack for favouritism towards allowing certain businesses to remain open during the MCOs. The fiercest criticism of the Ismail Sabri government is not coming from the opposition camp.

Ismail Sabri appears to have an invisible helping hand by Mahathir loyalists like Daim Zainuddin, who is strongly rumoured to be assisting pro-Ismail candidates for the UMNO party elections.

To save Najib from prison, and Zahid from being convicted, an early election is better. If UMNO wins and Zahid is still un-convicted and UMNO president, he will have influence over Ismail Sabri in his position as prime minister.

Heavy campaigning is already going on within the party for the coming UMNO elections. It's not certain that Zahid can hold onto the presidency. It will be a tough fight and there is a lot of money out there against him.

Najib is showing he is still a formidable force to be reckoned with within UMNO, and he has electoral appeal. Notwithstanding his conviction and all the other allegations against him, he is still powerful within UMNO.

There is talk that the Najib/Zahid forces will pull out a proxy candidate to challenge Ismail Sabri for the UMNO presidency. One of the favourites is Tok Mat, who projects himself much more moderately than Ismail Sabri, and has a respectable track record as Negeri Sembilan Menterii Besar (chief minister), and corporate banking before that.

The prime objective for the Najib/Zahid forces is to achieve a result that will get convictions and charges withdrawn, or even a pardon, if need be. Pardons in Malaysia are now political, as the Anwar Ibrahim pardon provides a precedent which will no doubt be used to support any future move for a pardon.

This is disappointing for those in Malaysia who want a government run by ‘un-corrupt’ leaders, and/or want to see reforms. No matter which side wins, these aspirations won’t be met. 
This UMNO showdown won’t bring political stability either. It's going to allow Malaysian politics to keep drifting in the same direction it is now. The only thing it will bring is more political theatre.