KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) — Malaysia’s ruling party Tuesday opens a landmark meeting to elect a new leadership and map out its future, a year after disastrous elections that jeopardized its half-century hold on power.
The five-day assembly will be launched with a speech by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is to step down in favor of his deputy Najib Razak after an unremarkable six years in power.
After the closed-door address, Najib will deliver a speech that will be closely watched for signs of where he will take the United Malays National Organization, better known as UMNO, which has been in crisis since the March 2008 polls.
“The thrust of his speech will be on reform and change, that UMNO must change or be changed,” the Star daily said in an analysis.
“He will tell his listeners that… if it does not elect a team that has a clean and hardworking image, the party risks being rejected in the next general election,” it said.
Up to 2,700 delegates will gather at the party’s headquarters to anoint Najib as the new UMNO president, and cast their votes for key roles, including deputy president and heads of the youth and women’s wings.
In line with UMNO custom, Najib is succeeding Abdullah unopposed. The party chief traditionally becomes prime minister, and leader of the Barisan Nasional coalition of race-based parties.
Rafidah Aziz, the former trade minister and women’s wing chief, said the changing of the guard would open a new chapter after the elections that handed the opposition control of five states and a third of parliamentary seats.
“It is a landmark in our history because for the first time in our history we suffered such losses. So this is the time when with the new leadership we will be able to see the way forward,” she said.
Rafidah said there was “nothing wrong with the party” but that “members and leaders sometimes do things which smear the image of the party, that cause people to have an erosion of confidence in the party.”
Najib warned in a weekend interview that there is no guarantee that UMNO, which has governed Malaysia since independence half a century ago, will retain its dominant role.
He said the party must tackle corruption – a major factor in the electoral drubbing – and the perception that it is arrogant and self-serving.
“This is the most critical time in the history of UMNO and BN,” he said, calling for “massive changes” to the party and the government.
“We need to undertake reforms, be it in the party or government, as the people have given us the signals in the last general election – to change.”
Despite the voices being raised in favor of reform, there are concerns that the party may reject calls for liberalization and instead choose to shore up its support among conservatives.
Political observers say that recent events, including sedition charges against an opposition veteran for criticizing a Malay royal ruler, and the banning of two opposition newspapers, indicate a hardline approach could be in the offing.
Source : AFP