INCREDIBLE as it may sound, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has survived the epic clash with Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
It is no mean feat because very few have been able to endure an offensive by the awesome Dr Mahathir and emerge alive, politically speaking, that is. Some big-name casualties have included Tun Musa Hitam, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
It has been one long year of attack after attack by Dr Mahathir – at home and abroad, in the foreign media, via his blog, at public forums and generally to anybody who would listen.
He has thrown everything including the kitchen sink at Najib. And the amazing thing is that, through it all, Najib did not once make any critical or personal remarks about the elder man.
The relationship between Najib and the man whom he once looked upon as a mentor figure is beyond repair.
Dr Mahathir is a gentleman in many ways but he is no gentleman when it comes to losing. He hates losing, he is not used to it and he has vowed to continue his campaign against Najib. That is his right, no one can make him shut up and, besides, he still has a sizeable audience out there.
But here’s the thing, whichever way one looks at it, Najib has won the fight although his supporters prefer to say he has survived. They know that although their boss has emerged the winner, he has not been left unscathed.
“He is very strong in the party, I don’t think anybody is going to argue about that,” said Temerloh Umno division chief Datuk Sharkar Shamsuddin.
Najib’s political clout was further reinforced last week when the 2016 Budget was passed with 128 votes by the Barisan Nasional side against 74 votes by the Pakatan Rakyat and Pakatan Harapan side.
It was the second time in a month that his ruling coalition had proven that they have the numbers in Parliament. The first time was when Barisan MPs approved a motion to suspend DAP’s Lim Kit Siang with 107 votes against 77 votes by the opposing bench.
It effectively buried the opposition’s claims that they had support from Barisan MPs. They could not even get the support of the MPs from PAS.
“Look at our side – Kuli (Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah) and Tan Sri Muhyiddin (Yassin) were there, they voted for the Budget,” said Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Johari Ghani.
The opposition bench had portrayed the Budget vote as a vote of no confidence in Najib but it failed. Instead of embarrassing Najib, the opposition exposed the split on their own side. Not all the PAS MPs came along and the opposition bench was split between the two Pakatan groups.
It is clear that Najib has the support in Umno, he has the numbers in Parliament and he has survived the “Mahathir virus”.
The year 2016 has been Najib’s annus horribilis but, said his old friend and former Philippines ambassador Datuk Seri Dr Ibrahim Saad, “he has come out of the woods” and is on firm ground again.
But he still has a few more hurdles to clear, namely the PAC investigation on the 1MDB issue and the Umno general assembly next month.
This is not going to be an easy party general assembly given the tensions between him and his deputy president Muhyiddin.
It will be awkward, too, for the new Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
Everyone will be watching the delicate triangle on stage – a deputy president who is not the Deputy Prime Minister, the vice-president who took over as Deputy Prime Minister and the president who made it all happen. Every facial expression and gesture will be scrutinised by the delegates and media.
The circle around Najib is concerned about what Muhyiddin may say or do during the assembly. The deputy president traditionally addresses the joint-opening of the Wanita, Youth and Puteri wings and also does a winding-up speech at the end of the general proceedings.
Muhyiddin is still hurt over the way he was treated and there is no predicting whether he will use the stage to voice his unhappiness over the 1MDB issue.
Or will he be stopped from speaking given the speculation of disciplinary action against him and several others for statements deemed as damaging to the party?
Dr Mahathir will be a no-show. He snubbed a few of these assemblies during Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s presidency and it will be an outright boycott this time around.
Umno general assemblies have become quite predictable over the years because speakers are carefully selected so that they do not go too far out of line .
The more cynical say it will be the usual retinue of jokes, praises and bodek(apple-polishing). Actually, a large part of the debates often touch on issues close to the Malay, Muslim and nationalistic heart of Umno members. Issues like threats to their religion, education and language, the economy, religious terrorism and, of course, the opposition will feature in the debate.
Some suggested that Dr Mahathir’s “de facto opposition leader” role the last one year may also crop up in the debate.
Kok Lanas assemblyman Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad said any criticism of the former Premier will be understated and indirect. Alwi’s dazzling oratory has seen him picked to debate the motion of thanks on the president’s speech the last two years.
“Tun Mahathir is like our father. We don’t like to argue even though we disagree. He reminds me of my late father who insisted on renovating the house every time one of my sisters got married. It was a waste of money but it was his house. When my son got married, we held it in a hotel,” said Alwi.
According to Dr Ibrahim, even though Umno members are critical of Dr Mahathir, deep in their hearts, they still want him as part of the family.
Sabah rising star Datuk Rahman Dahlan said there will be no gag order on issues like 1MDB or even the controversial RM2.6bil donation.
“I don’t think they (the delegates) should be stopped from talking on things they care about. But every year, we have a pre-council briefing for the delegates before the assembly starts for the leadership to set the tone and this always helps control the temperature,” said Rahman who is Urban Well-being, Housing and Local Government Minister.
As for concern about whether Muhyiddin could be the wild card in the assembly, Rahman said the president has the last word at every assembly during the winding up.
“That is an important speech during which the president has the last say and is able to answer to anything that has been raised,” he said.
Najib will have to bring it on this time, both at his opening presidential address and also in his closing address. He may have to deliver the most crucial speeches of his political career.
This assembly, said Alwi, is also special in that it will be Dr Ahmad Zahid’s first as Deputy Prime Minister. But given the awkward circumstances, he will have to hold back the elation.
Becoming the country’s No. 2 has been a dream come true for this popular Perak-born politician. He was also a victim of Dr Mahathir back in 1998 but he has come a long way since. His once fractured English is behind him, and he now has an easy-going command of the language.
Dr Ahmad Zahid marked his first 100 days, in a low-key fashion, with a tahlil for about 500 of his close friends and supporters at the Deputy Prime Minister’s official residence. He has yet to move in, and that evening was the first time he set foot in the residence.
He has never been busier. He has made three official trips overseas and he has been going round to meet party grassroots leaders in all the states.
Everyone wants a piece of him and he tries not to turn down any invitations. His days are so jam-packed that he tells his aides that he feels lucky when he has time to sleep and eat.
What is more important is that with his natural political skills, he has been able to lighten the political workload of his president.
Najib’s journey of survival is reminiscent of the Salami Principle, a Cold War analogy that refers to a political agenda that is subtly advanced. It is based on the idea that no sensible person would consume an entire salami in one sitting but if fed one slice at a time it can be consumed with little notice.
Step by step, he has inched his way out of quick sand onto more stable ground.
He needs a smooth and trouble-free Umno general assembly to further consolidate his position.