It is possible that Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin may not appoint Najib Abdul Razak as prime minister despite being Umno president, said Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
Razaleigh, a veteran Umno leader, pointed to last year's decision by the king, who is also Terengganu sultan, in refusing to endorse the Umno leadership's nominee Idris Jusoh as menteri besar for his state.
Eventually Umno backed down and the king's choice, Ahmad Said, became menteri besar.
"He (the king) could probably appointed someone other than the man nominated by the party," said Razaleigh, a Kelantan prince and uncle of Sultan Ismail Petra.
Razaleigh was asked by Malaysiakini to comment on former de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim who had on Wednesday urged the king not to appoint Najib as PM.
Going gets tough for BN
Razaleigh also said that Barisan Nasional will face a "tough" fight in the next general elections, expected to be held in three years.
“Don't forget, there are going to be six million new voters, so we've been told - two million who missed the vote in the last election and the four million others in the coming years. So you have six million plus who will be testing us.”
He said that the ruling coalition will find it difficult to win the April 7 bellwether by-election in Bukit Gantang - a parliamentary seat in Perak that will be a ‘referendum’ on the BN takeover of the state government there.
Razaleigh, 71, a former finance minister, was a heartbeat away from becoming prime minister in 1987 after a power struggle within Umno in which he challenged Dr Mahathir Mohamad for party president and lost by a wafer-thin majority of 43 votes.
He had since ran twice for Umno presidency - in 2004 against Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and more recently against Najib Abdul Razak. But both times he failed to secure the required nominations from Umno divisions to qualify for the contest.
Interestingly, Razaleigh said he “cannot see” Najib resorting to repressive measures against his critics when he becomes prime minister.
“If he wants to improve his image with the people then he has to come clean. You have ways, go to the court or do things that will be accepted by the people - not to use force or power because that will put him in a worse position that he is experiencing now.”
The following is the second of a four-part interview conducted at Razaleigh’s palatial home-cum-office in Ampang dubbed as the ‘White House’.
Malaysiakini: Zaid made a hard-hitting speech urging the king not the appoint Najib because he is seen to be tainted. What's your view on that?
Razaleigh: That seems to be the talk everywhere. People are not happy with the way things are happening - Perak, here, and because of that, it prompted people like Zaid to say all these things which otherwise would only be whispered in coffee shops and offices.
Do you expect the king not to appoint Najib as PM?
You can never tell, because you never thought the king would move to appoint a different person to head the government of Terengganu.
He is no longer the sultan of Terengganu when he became the Agong, yet because he felt strongly about the situation in his own state, he decided to function also as the ruler of Terengganu. He could probably appointed someone other than the man nominated by the party.
Seeing that Najib will be PM, how is he going to be different from Abdullah? What do you expect from a Najib government?
You are asking a very unfair question, he is not even PM yet. He is a ‘play safe’ chap from my knowledge of Najib. It is very difficult to say anything much more about him. And because of that, it is very difficult to compare (him with Abdullah) because he hasn't started (as PM).
But he did show his hand somewhat, such as the Perak takeover…
The Perak takeover is in a mess. The (second economic) stimulus is also not bearing fruits, it's not effective.
Zaid said he expects a little more repression, a reversal of democratic opening...
I normally associate repressive measures with people who are weak. If Najib is as strong a personality as he tends to portray, then he wouldn't adopt repressive measures. He would adopt repressive measures if there is a ‘war’, you know, not being able to fight back democratically, then he would use all the instruments (of power) in his disposal.
He has to do something to bring the party back together again. But whether he could do it or not, that's another matter. We are in a very unique position today.
Previously the party was strong, and although there maybe divisions but because of the strong representation of the party in Parliament and at the state government level, whatever divisive forces taking place within the party did not mar the party’s performance.
But Najib, to some extend, is being pushed to the corner. The opposition is getting stronger.
I see no necessity for him to do otherwise other than accept what is coming to him.
But do you expect him to impose repressive measures?
I cannot see, I cannot see.
Most people would say that they expect Najib to be…
Yes, a lot of people say that, but I cannot see.
What for? If he assumes power, he has all that power to exercise and there is nothing in the way that will obstruct him. In Parliament, he has the majority; he does not need to do things to stop the opposition from obstructing his action.
But he does have an image problem. If people out there continue to throw mud at him, like the Altantuya case, he would have to respond.
Well, by not using (state) power. I think he has to come clean with the public. If he wants to improve his image with the people then he has to come clean. You have ways, go to the court or do things that will be accepted by the people - not to use force or power because that will put him in a worse position that he is experiencing now.
Will Umno survive the next general election?
Tough, very tough. In fact, I'm not so sure we could win in Bukit Gantang. We have a good candidate, but depending on the voter turnout, we don't know whether we can make it or not.
After all, we lost that seat in the general election and we may not be able to recover unless the voters come out, but with what is happening in Perak, and the economy - people are losing their jobs - I think it is going to be very tough for us.
What about Bukit Selambau?
Even Bukit Selambau, because of the MIC's position today - it’s not being able to give leadership or direction. Again, I think it is going to be tough.
There is a lot of defection to PKR. I've not been there, but I think all three by-elections are going to be tough for us.
You've mentioned a number of times about the need for reforms in Umno. Do you think the party can really reform itself?
It depends on the leader. If the leader genuinely demonstrates that he honestly wants to bring about changes, then I think he could get the support and get the reforms. But if he does not show or demonstrates that he wants reform, then I don't think he will get that support.
If you look at other countries, the ruling party would have to lose power before it would reform itself.
I'm not suggesting that we should lose power; I don't think the Malays are going to see Umno lose power.
But on the other hand, we can never really tell, because nobody in power thought we were going to lose that badly on March 8 in 2008, but there you are, we lost - we lost five states and we lost two-thirds majority in Parliament.
But this time around, I think the voters may put us to test, and we may lose, or we may not lose very badly, depends on how the leadership shape things.
You mean the voters in the next general election?
Yes, next general election, because don't forget that there are going to be six million voters coming in, so we've been told - two million who missed the vote in the last election and the four million others in the coming years. So you have six million plus who will be testing us.
Umno has always been getting support from the rural areas, do you think in the coming general election they will enjoy the same support?
Yes and no, it depends on how well the people find us, whether we have serve them well, and of course like I said, even in Bukit Gantang, things are not going to be favourable to the government. So it's going to be very tough for the government to go around making the voters happy. It's not going to be easy.