Prepping for high-stakes polls

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The Umno general assembly this week will see Najib rallying the troops as the momentum builds up for the mother of all battles.

DATUK Seri Najib Tun Razak must have felt like he has been running a marathon since taking over as Umno president.

The running is not over as the most urgent stretch lies ahead. The Umno general assembly this week will find him revving up the moment and injecting a heightened dose of urgency into the party ahead of the looming general election.

This is the penultimate gathering before what some have described as the definitive election. Najib has thrown himself into his role as Prime Minister and Umno president and expectations will be high as Umno delegates gather at the Putra World Trade Centre.

Political insiders say he is approaching the party gathering with cautious optimism. He has an impressive report card as Prime Minister and it is evident by now that no one in his party can quite match what he has accomplished in the Government.

His popularity is quite high and, more important, he has cross-sectional appeal and approval among the different communities.

They see him as a committed Prime Minister. They find him intelligent, hard-working, experienced and a safe pair of hands for secular Malaysia. More people out there have been willing to give Barisan Nasional the benefit of the doubt since he took over as Prime Minister.

His challenge from day one has been the image of Umno, the party that has the most to gain and also the most to lose, depending on the outcome of the general election.

This will be a critical assembly, the final formal meeting where he can inject political urgency, motivate members and drum home the stakes at large for the party.

The time for scolding or self-analysis is long over. The over-arching theme will be about preparing for battle and a show of strength.

The Umno president will be invoking the fighting spirit and gung-ho to take his party into the polls. Umno will have to step up its game to take on the strongest opposition front ever.

But if the closed-door presidential briefing yesterday afternoon was any gauge, Najib’s prime concern is getting the party’s cooperation on winnable candidates.

He made an impassionate appeal to delegates who attended the briefing to put the party’s interest in the upcoming election.

“We need to get through the 13th general election, this one is so critical. Believe me, if we get through this one, the 14th or 15th general election will not be as tough,” he said.

He is telling his party to make an exception, to put aside their personal ambitions in this do-or-die election. He said he would have to say “very sorry” and reject a candidate who cannot win even if the person was his best friend.

He had everyone laughing when he said that people whom he had not seen for two or three years had begun turning up at the airport to greet him.

“We smile at each other but if you are not winnable, even if we wave at each other every day, very sorry, I cannot pick you,” he said.

Winnable candidates will decide Umno’s fate and Najib will use the assembly to lay down the rules on the matter. He knows that while party members acknowledge the need for winnable candidates, not everyone may go along with a decision on candidates when the time comes.

He means to put his foot down with certain warlords in choosing candidates in the months ahead and he will want to use the assembly to secure a commitment from the delegates that they will endorse the leadership’s choice of candidates.

He is driving home the point that everyone has to be prepared for changes whether they like it or not.

He has been evaluating the performances of incumbent Yang Berhormats and the crunch will take place after the assembly when he will get down to the nitty-gritty of breaking the bad news to some and the good news to others.

“He is telling us that the party needs to be extraordinary to survive the next election and everyone has to give their 101% support,” said Kapar Umno deputy chief Datuk Faizal Abdullah.

Umno members probably feel like they have been running a marathon themselves and on pretty unfamiliar terrain at that. But while some of them have surged ahead or kept pace with their competitors, others have been running on the spot.

There is a sense that the Pakatan Rakyat side is far hungrier for power than Umno is to regain lost ground. Najib’s public image has overtaken that of his party and even that of his opponents.

But Umno’s image has not changed very much. Party members see themselves in the image of their leader, they see themselves reflected in the strong and capable leadership but the view from outside is still negative.

Najib has broken away from the tradition of giving Utusan Malaysia the exclusive interview-with-the-president. Since taking over, he has used the national news agency Bernama to disseminate his pre-assembly message.

He evidently wants what he says as Umno president to be seen as a national message to all Malaysians rather than to a largely Malay and Umno audience.

Najib grew up in the old politics but his survival now hinges on how well he juggles the demands between the old and new politics.

It has not been terribly challenging but if he takes his party and Barisan to a convincing election victory, he will be the first Prime Minister of the new politics because that is how things are going to be in the future.

Source : The Star

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