In a telling victory, Khairy Jamaluddin - the son-in-law of outgoing Umno president Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - defied the odds and his greatest enemies in the party to clinch the Youth chief post.
However, political watchers warn his triumph may be short-lived and the stage is now set for a major crackdown by prime minister-designate Najib Abdul Razak.
“The win will take away some of the humiliation that Abdullah was subjected to in the past weeks. From the voting pattern, it is clear there is still some support for him in Umno,” said KeADILan chief Tian Chua
“But we should not be too naive about it and Pak Lah should not feel too secure. His enemies can any time hang Khairy with formal charges of corruption. Even we in the opposition are expecting a major crackdown very soon against our own members, especially against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim.”
The shock outcome will surely displease Najib, the incoming Umno president, and his mentor, ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, whose son Mukhriz was also fighting for the same post. In fact, Khairy’s victory should serve as a real warning, especially as Shahrizat Jalil won the Women’s chief post on the same night, ousting long-time Mahathir ally Rafidah Aziz.
More desperate moves can now be expected from the Najib-Mahathir camp, as last week’s ruthless purge against Abdullah’s men backfire in a clear sign that their own popularity may be waning even faster than their rival’s.
The stakes have been raised and how severe and immediate their reaction will be depends on the outcome of the contests for the three vice presidencies and in particular the deputy president’s post.
Harsher crackdowns including Anwar’s arrest expected
The No 2 post to Najib’s No 1 in the party is being contested by another Abdullah associate, Muhammad Muhammad Taib, who will take on Najib’s favoured candidate, Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
All eyes are also on whether Najib’s cousin, Education Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, will capture one of the hotly-contested VP seats. Like Mukhriz, Hishammuddin was a clear favourite at the outset, but his popularity has dropped since nominations closed in November.
The fear that gripped the party then - fuelled by the Najib-Mahathir camp - that their dominance would soon be overtaken by the Pakatan Rakyat has since diminished. Many have come to view a two-coalition political system as a good check-and-balance against the excesses of their own leaders.
In fact, along with other Malaysians, many believe the best way to pull the country and the economy out of the current political turmoil would be the formation of a unity government - a power sharing between the two coalitions.
They also do not want the scandal-plagued Najib to be prime minister because of the string of unresolved graft allegations against him, including the high-profile murder-and-commission case of Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu.
A recent series of heavy-handed suppressions including the banning of two opposition newspapers, rough police action towards crowds attending opposition by-election campaigns, a botched and unpopular power grab in Perak, have also worked against Najib.
With so much going against him, he is expected to take it out on Anwar, the reform icon rated as having the best chance of leading a popular revolt against him.
“There is widespread expectation that Anwar will be arrested very soon. There will some trumped-up charge or other, but the real intention is to secure some breathing space for Najib to stamp his authority on the country,” said a political analyst.
“He and Mahathir will show the iron-fist. There will be a lot of doublespeak, but Malaysians should not be simplistic about it. With so much political turmoil, how can the economy function, who would have confidence about the type of governance and system in the country?.”
Stigma of corruption
Meanwhile, critics of the flamboyant Khairy - who stepped on many toes apart from Mahathir’s - slammed his election as a further sign that Umno was insincere about ridding itself of corruption.
“The stigma is there. No matter that he and Ali Rustam were singled out and that giving ‘petrol money’ is rampant and practised by all the other leaders. It is still money politics, it is still corruption and there should be no excuse not to bring in the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission,” said Tian.
In last week’s purge, the 33-year old MP for Rembau was accused of vote buying and issued a warning letter. Popular vice-president Mohd Ali Rustam - the front-runner in the race for the deputy presidency - was disqualified from contesting on similar grounds.
Outraged Umno grassroots raised a hue and cry, putting Najib and Mahathir on the defensive. Political watchers predicted a swathe of sympathy votes would swing to the Abdullah camp in protest of the aggressive move.
So far, part of their prediction has come true. Last night, Khairy topped with 304 votes, Mukhriz last with 232, and Khir in the middle at 252.
Shahrizat trounced ‘Iron Lady’ Rafidah Aziz for the top women’s post with a majority of 227 votes, polling 507 versus the latter’s 280.
All eyes are now watching to see if Abdullah’s influence can extend to the No 2 post in the party, from which he was forced to stand down late last year in the wake of a disastrous electoral performance in March.