Can Abdullah delay decision on the new DPM for several weeks after becoming Prime Minister on Nov. 1?
by Lim Kit Siang
(Penang, Tuesday): It has been speculated that Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will defer decision on the new Deputy Prime Minister for a few weeks, at least until the end of the puasa month in the fourth week of November when he becomes the fifth Prime Minister in less than three weeks’ time on November 1.
There will in fact be a precedent for the delay in the announcement of the new No. 2 in the government, as when Hussein Onn became the third Prime Minister in January 1976 on the death of Tun Razak in London of leukaemia, he took six weeks to decide on his Deputy Prime Minister.
The important difference however is that the decision to appoint a Deputy Prime Minister was suddenly forced on Hussein in January 1976 because of Razak’s death, while Abdullah had more than 16 months to ponder the question of his No. 2 since the dramatic resignation announcement of Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the UMNO General Assembly in June last year – and any further delay will reinforce the impression of political weakness and the lack of decisive authority, as Abdullah could not possibly require some more time to decide on the issue.
Four questions uppermost in everybody’s mind when Abdullah is sworn in as Prime Minister on Nov. 1 are: How long can he last? What are the Cabinet changes? Will there be any policy changes? When will Abdullah dissolve Parliament and call for a general election?
The last chapter of a book on Abdullah’s forthcoming premiership is entitled: “Prime Minister in Transit?”. A further delay in the announcement of his choice as Deputy Prime Minister will be seen as a sign of weakness which is not calculated to enable him to stamp his leadership and authority in the shortest possible time.
If he has the choice to pick the person he prefers most as his Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is unlikely to be the candidate. However, Abdullah will not have the luxury to choose the person he prefers most as his No. 2, as he must reckon with the political realities in UMNO.
If Najib is by-passed a second time – he had obtained the highest votes as UMNO Vice President in the 1996 UMNO Supreme Council elections but lost out to Abdullah who was only second in rank in the UMNO Vice President’s hierarchy when Mahathir chose Abdullah as the Deputy Prime Minister to fill the slot left by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibhrahim – there would be legitimate grounds for a revolt by the Najib forces in UMNO.
However Abdullah, fully conscious of the question as to whether he is only a Prime Minister “in transit” with Najib posing the greatest challenge, will find the naming of Najib as the new Deputy Prime Minister a most uncomfortable decision.
On the second question as to whether there would be major Cabinet changes, it is probable that Abdullah will keep his Cabinet largely intact until the next general election – which was what both Hussein and Mahathir did when they became Prime Minister before the holding of a general election. Such an option still requires the important decision as to who should be the new Finance Minister. Will Abdullah himself take over the portfolio appointing a new Home Minister – Rais Yatim? – or will there be a new Finance Minister? Might Tengku Razaleigh return to the Cabinet and to his old Ministry after an absence of 17 years?
The third question requires more time for answer, although the prospects are not very encouraging as Mahathir had said at the Barisan Nasional’s “Power Sharing” 50th Anniversary public rally in Kuala Lumpur on 20th September 2003 that there would be no policy change when Abdullah takes over the premiership on November 1.
As for the fourth question on the timing of the next general election, there are three possible dates, in December this year, March-April next year or in June after the 30th anniversary celebrations for the establishment of Malaysia-China diplomatic relations which will see the visit of Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao to Malaysia, enabling the Barisan Nasional to play the “China card” in the polls.
Speculation on the timing of the next general election has so far omitted one important factor – the UMNO Supreme Council elections which will be held after the next general election which will see election for the posts of UMNO President and Deputy President for the first time in 16 years, not ruling out the possibility that Abdullah might not only face a challenge but a formidable contest for the post of UMNO President and consequently, that of the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Time may be needed, not only to prepare for the 11th national general election but even more important, for the first contests for the posts of President and Deputy President for UMNO Baru since its registration in 1988 after the old UMNO was declared illegal and dissolved.
* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman