The biggest challenge facing Prime Minister Najib Razak in his effort to win the next general election is not the fallout of the 1MDB scandal or funding or the Opposition.
According to an analysis in the Straits Times (ST), it is how Najib handles the selection of candidates to contest on the Umno ticket.
It notes that candidate selection is a frequent source of internal crisis in Umno.
The ST analysis quotes senior Umno leaders as acknowledging that the candidate selection process could bring to the open the simmering rivalry between Umno’s second echelon leaders.
It says there are growing tensions between the supporters of Umno Deputy President Zahid Hamidi and the party’s third-most senior leader, Najib’s cousin Hishammuddin Hussein.
This could undermine party unity and expose Umno to internal sabotage during the polls.
“Najib’s stranglehold over Umno has helped him stay in power throughout the 1MDB debacle. Putting a lid on dissent in the party ahead of the next general election will determine how long he stays in office.”
Quoting Umno insiders, the analysis says the party has set the end of December as the deadline to finalise the list of candidates.
The candidate selection will be supervised by Zahid.
The analysis, by Leslie Lopez, also says the ruling coalition is bound to win. However, it adds that for this to happen Najib has to call for the election within a year, before the economy takes a possible turn for the worse.
It says indications that the general election would be held next year, possibly in the latter half, included the instructions to Umno members to get prepared for early polls and the drawing up of new electoral boundaries.
Umno strategists are confident that cash handouts and other financial assistance schemes to alleviate the impact of the sharp spikes in the cost of living will help win over the Malays – its voter base.
The BN is also counting on the feel-good factor from big infrastructure projects such as the proposed multi-billion-dollar high-speed rail project linking Kuala Lumpur with Singapore and the full commissioning next year of KL’s Mass Rail Transit network.
The analysis observes that there is widespread despair with the BN and Najib. It notes that the proposal by the Election Commission to re-delineate electoral constituencies nationwide that “unashamedly benefits the BN” has opened fresh debate about the uneven playing field in national elections. The pro-democracy Bersih has already said it would hold a rally on Nov 19.
But, according to the ST analysis, this anger is unlikely to be translated into votes in any major way because the Opposition is fractured and there is deep voter discontent over the incessant politicking, particularly among the Chinese community.
Although Najib does not have to call for a national election until mid-2018, he cannot be assured that all the elements will remain in his favour for long.
The economic environment, it notes, will be far more uncertain in 2018 and potential trouble spots, such as the country’s overheated property sector and concerns over the high levels of household debt, could boil over and push the economy into a prolonged crisis.
For the moment, Najib has clout in Umno because of his ability to keep the party’s patronage machine humming.
But, according to the ST analysis, another major scandal or an international censure similar to the recent asset forfeiture action by the United States Department of Justice could force a rethink among the party’s rank-and-file which could spell problems for the prime minister.
FMT Reporters Online