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Malaysia's Najib tightens grip on party as loyalists win poll.

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct. 20 Kyodo

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak consolidated his grip over the ruling party as his loyalists returned to power in the party poll according to results announced early Sunday.

The United Malays National Organization, the biggest party in the 13-party National Front coalition that has ruled the country since its independence 52 years ago, held its triennial party poll on Saturday to elect three vice presidents and 25 members to the supreme council, the party's highest decision-making body.

The posts of party president and deputy president were already won by Najib and his deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin uncontested when nominations closed last month.

All eyes were on the vice presidents' race and the 146,000-odd delegates from UMNO 191 divisions across the country decided to go with the incumbents, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Rural and Regional Development Minister Shafie Apdal and Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein who is the son of the country's third Prime Minister Hussein Onn and also Najib's cousin.

Of the three, Hishamuddin had the toughest fight as his closest contender was Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of another former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad.

Mukhriz's candidacy had been viewed as a barometer of Mahathir's influence in the party.

Since officially retiring in 2003, Mahathir has remained a force to be reckoned with inside and outside the party that he had led for more than two decades. He played a part in the downfall of his successor, then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, with his incessant attacks on Abdullah's attempt to reverse some of his policies.

The web newspaper The MalaysianInsider called Mahathir the "agitator-in-chief." His influence is with the more conservative faction of the party that believes the special rights accorded to the ethnic Malays are non-negotiable and wants the government to maintain a hard-line stance on the primacy of Islam and against opposition.

Ethnic Malays form more than 60 percent of the country's 29 million people and are the core UMNO supporters.

Joceline Tan, the columnist of The Star daily, said Mukhriz lost because there was order from high up to maintain the status quo that was the combination of Zahid, Shafie and Hishamuddin.

Mahathir may be the most popular figure in UMNO, pipping even Najib according to a recent survey conducted by independent research house the Merdeka Center, delegates preferred not to rock the boat.

But this does not mean Mahathir's influence is waning.

Mukhriz polled more popular votes than Hishamuddin, but he lost because of the party electoral college system where each party division is accorded one vote.

The results show Mahathir can move UMNO's delegates but also that his power is not absolute, political analyst Keith Leong of the research house KRA Group told Kyodo News.

Now that Najib has the team he wants, he can focus on rebuilding UMNO to capture ground lost during the May general election.

The May poll showed UMNO's influence is waning in more sophisticated urban areas.

Its image as a corrupt and racist party has put off not just non-Malays who are demanding equal opportunities and an end to the pro-Malay affirmative action policy, but also among Malays who feel the benefits are not trickling down but instead going to UMNO cronies.

And doubts remain if Najib will be able to push through the reforms he needs but which have been hampered by opposition from his party's right-wing.

"While Najib's allies have been returned to power, it remains to be seen if his standing is secure enough to restart the reform process that stalled after the ruling coalition underperformed in the last election," Leong said.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Date:Oct 21, 2013
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