KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 6 — Neutral voters will view Umno more dimly in the 15th general election if they suspect its factional politics to be responsible for Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin having to run an impossible race or abstain entirely, according to analysts.
On Sunday, Khairy confirmed that Umno deputy president Datuk Seri Mohamad Hasan, who is the Rembau Umno division chief, has asked him to make way. While he said he would comply, the request so close to the general election could leave him without an alternative to contest.
Political analysts said the move could be seen as Umno president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s retaliation against Khairy and other party leaders who were not immediately obeying his wishes.
Universiti Sains Malaysia political scientist Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid also observed latent hostility in Khairy and Mohamad’s remarks about the musical chairs in Rembau, which he said signalled strained relations within the Malay nationalist party.
“If this is the type of public statements they keep on issuing, Umno shouldn’t blame the public then if people speculate about the internal power play that’s developing among different Umno factions and personalities,” he told Malay Mail.
Ahmad Fauzi argued that Khairy represented the future of Umno and has even been touted as a possible candidate to be prime minister, indicating his appeal among sections of Malaysia that did not traditionally support Umno.
Among others, he said Khairy was one of the few leaders in Umno who did not try to deny the 1MDB global corruption scandal, and took on the role of a reformist in the aftermath of the party’s unprecedented defeat in the 2018 general election.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Professor Azmi Hassan said that while moving Khairy out of Rembau would not irrecoverably harm Umno’s chances of retaining the seat, it would jeopardise how the overall party was perceived.
“[If] he doesn’t compete, it’ll be a black dot on Umno as there will be a perception that he is not the president’s man, so, he is not chosen at this particular stage,” Azmi said when contacted.
Umno’s election candidates are ultimately decided by party president Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is already fending off allegations that he was leading the party in directions beneficial to the so-called “court cluster” instead of the larger good.
The “court cluster” was the pejorative term that political rivals used to describe Umno leaders such as Ahmad Zahid and former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who were on trial for corruption.
Even before Khairy confirmed he was told to yield Rembau, there were already rumours that he could be moved to the Port Dickson federal seat where the incumbent is Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Both Ahmad Fauzi and Azmi were pessimistic about Khairy’s chances of defeating Anwar in the seat he won by a landslide, even with the current approval the health minister’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic in Malaysia.
“If the party sends [Khairy] to Port Dickson against Anwar, the people fear it’s part of a slick plan by reigning Umno warlords to kill off or at least scuttle his political career,” Ahmad Fauzi said.
Political analyst Muhamad Azwan Abd Rahman from the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said Khairy would likely struggle to secure the undivided support from Umno needed to win in Port Dickson, due to his cold relationship with Ahmad Zahid and failure to openly back the “court cluster” leaders.
Azwan went as far as saying Khairy could be left completely without a seat to contest in the general election that is now expected to be held in November, which the former Umno Youth chief conceded would be a possible “worst-case scenario”.
“However, retaining Khairy’s seat in Rembau will give a different impact because the public also perceived Khairy as one of the potential future leaders that will change Umno from within and Malaysia internationally through his current performance,” Azwan said.
Political analyst Prof Kartini Aboo Talib @ Khalid disagreed that Khairy was sure to lose against Anwar, however, saying the winds of change could still carry him to an upset victory in Port Dickson.
She argued that Khairy’s stock has risen significantly from his handling of Malaysia’s Covid-19 vaccination drive — first as the minister of science, technology and innovation before he continued this as the health minister — which has won over segments of Malaysia that did not previously approve of him.
Conversely, she said Anwar has diminished his credibility after it was revealed that he initially considered cooperating with Ahmad Zahid and Najib in order to secure the support needed for his abortive bid to oust Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin as the prime minister.
“People want a change for once, and no more the old ‘political tycoon’, metaphorically speaking,” she said when contacted.
“We must not forget that Pakatan Harapan was in power due to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 2018, and Anwar won the seat in Port Dickson due to the pact between Tun and PH. Without Tun, PH will not succeed,” she argued.
Still, some analysts believe the situation may not be entirely dire for Khairy, who could receive a fortunate favour from — coincidentally — Anwar.
Yesterday, Anwar reignited speculation that he could leave Port Dickson, after just one term, for another undisclosed seat.
Other than Port Dickson, Azmi also touted Tampin and Kuala Pilah as seats where Khairy could possibly overcome the slim margins by which Umno lost in the previous general election.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Khairy’s current popularity put him in a good position to win in one of these seats.
“In general, Khairy could probably contest in any mixed seat and have a decent winning chance. After all, his performance as first science and then health minister has been widely praised by Malaysians from all walks of life.
“It would be a matching fight for both of them in PD, but Anwar may be eyeing some other seats as well,” he added.
After securing a royal pardon in 2018, Anwar won the Port Dickson by-election by a landslide, taking 31,016 votes over the 7,456 that the PAS candidate, Lt Col (Rtd) Mohd Nazari Mokhtar, secured.
Fomer Negri Sembilan mentri besar Tan Sri Isa Samad, who had been touted to be Anwar’s strongest challenger at the time, was a distant third with 4,230 votes.