Jan 23, 2007

Not a done deal yet

(The Star) THE relationship between Umno Youth politicians Khairy Jamaluddin and Datuk Norza Zakaria had its ups and downs in the past. But things have been on a more even keel over the last few months, particularly after Khairy attended Norza’s Wangsa Maju Youth AGM last September.

At the AGM, Norza pledged his support for Khairy and presented the Umno Youth deputy chief with a huge portrait of Khairy and his wife Nori Abdullah, painted by a well-known artist in KL’s Central Market.

Just recently, Agendadaily.com – a news portal focused on Umno politics – featured Norza as a key contender for the post of Umno Youth chief.

Thus, when Khairy and Norza met at their riding club last weekend, Khairy teased him: “Wa, ketua Pemuda Umno!”

Norza's equally jokey response was: “I'm just the reserve candidate, in case you want to stay on as No.2.”

Actually, Norza, who is political secretary to the Finance Minister II, was not joking.

He is interested in the top post but only if Khairy does not go for it. He does not want to fight Khairy whom he used to describe as “my brother.”

More pertinent, he knows he will not stand much of a chance against Khairy.

Khairy, who turned 31 earlier this month, is already seen as the would-be successor to Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein Onn within the Youth wing.

Hishammuddin, who has headed the wing since 1999, has not said it outright but has indicated in private that he feels he has accomplished what he set out to do when he took over a fragmented wing from Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

The Education Minister reckons he has put the wing back on track, united the factions and restored the morale of members. His supporters want him to contest one of the three vice-president posts.

These are still early days except that in Umno it is never too early to prepare for contest, especially for a post as powerful as Umno Youth leader.

Some in the Youth wing say that the post is as good as Khairy's. And this is in spite of the fact that the past year has been a terrible and fiery path for Khairy. He was the subject of intense rumours and speculation and a target of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s censure against the Abdullah administration.

The pressure was overwhelming and his emotions rippled close to the surface when he addressed some of these issues at the string of Umno divisional meetings he attended in September last year.

“He was taken aback when he realised that people believed the stuff being said. He was furious at first but has learnt to deal with it, even to joke about it.

“I told him (there was) no point in banging tables and getting worked up,” said Umno Youth secretary and loyalist Datuk Rahman Dahlan.

Khairy seems to have survived the heat.

Still, is the Umno Youth post really a done deal for him? After all, there is Selangor Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo, who is seemingly disinterested but very much in the reckoning.

And there is Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, somewhat damaged by his father's actions but in no way to be written off.

“It’s not his for the taking but Khairy is the best candidate in sight,” said political insider Rohana Mahmood.

Khairy, Dr Khir and Mukhriz are the three serious contenders. The other names like Norza, Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin (Beseri assemblyman), and Datuk Azimi Daim (Umno Youth information chief) are thrown in more for conversation's sake.

“The Youth wing is ready to accept Khairy as the next leader. Say what you like about him, he has made an impact,” Norza admitted.

Zesty and ambitious

Khairy had stood out from the day he went into Umno Youth and not just because his father-in-law is Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

That he is several notches above others in the Youth wing was obvious from his understanding of national and global issues and the way he articulated them.

He has turned out to be an impressive orator and has energy and zest about his politics. Even now, those much more experienced than him are in awe of his ability.

Rohana recalled watching Khairy at the Asia Inc Forum in Jakarta last year where he was one of four speakers debating the relevance of Asean. The others were a former foreign minister, a senior economist and an economic journalist.

“He spoke so intelligently, he outshone the others. He really held the audience captive,” said Rohana.

At times, he is too unconventional for the taste of the average Umno person.

“Khairy has a lot of ideas and he is very passionate about his politics. He really wants to contribute; it's not just about being ambitious. But because he is a non-conformist and his ideas are sometimes too far ahead, people misunderstand him,” said Rahman.

But Khairy lost much of his shine with people outside the party over his stand on the NEP and controversial remarks about non-Malays taking advantage if Umno is weak.

Some in the party resent his relationship with the Prime Minister and think he has used it to move up too quickly. They also find him too ambitious for comfort.

Being the Prime Minister's son-in-law, he has learnt, can be a double-edged sword.

Can the Umno rank and file accept a scenario where the father-in-law is the party president and the son-in-law the Umno Youth chief?

Khairy is not unaware of the sentiments on the ground.

Said Rahman: “He knows that because of the relationship any contest for the top post may not be easy. Not everybody feels comfortable with it but he is working doubly hard to win over his sceptics.”

Khairy knows he has to overcome the perception of conflict of interest, and prove that Umno Youth can stay effective under him. He wants to take Umno Youth to a new, and more thinking, level.

It explains why he has been making his presence felt on the ground. For instance, he was in Kota Tinggi on Monday, going around the deluged town in a rubber dinghy, his jeans folded up to his knees like a fisherman. By evening he was in Batu Talam to prepare for the by-election's nomination the next day.

A great deal of politics is about perception and Khairy will have to continue working very hard.

“Khairy's an exceptional person but people are still not sure what he's made of. They are watching closely and he will have to prove that he is his own man,” said Rohana.

No comments: