WILL THERE BE A NEW PM BEFORE ELECTIONS?

It looks like Malaysia will be getting a new prime minister even before the general election, widely expected in June, is held. Embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak may soon step down soon in favour of his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin citing health reasons, but ultimately, the 59-year-old Najib would be the latest casualty of their Umno party's infighting and fear of losing the federal government to Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim and the latter's Pakatan Rakyat coalition.

Over the weekend, rumors were rife that Najib would dissolve Parliament on January 26 in a bid to stymie a purported maneuver by Muhyddin and former premier Mahathir Mohamad to oust him as Umno president and prime minister of the country before the 13th GE is held.

Such talk was soon overtaken by even hotter speculation that Najib had fallen ill. According to Sarawak Report, doctors have been on standby all weekend. There is little doubt the strain on Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor have been tremendous especially over the past few weeks when they were both the targets of a string of shocking corruption expose's by controversial businessman Deepak Jaikishan.

The first couple's deafening silence to the scorching allegations as well as Najib's very notable 'absence' from the public limelight over the past fortnight had stirred suspicion something was up. Some even specualated that Najib may have gone overseas for treatment.

"All we can say is that the BN administration must immediately clarify the actual situation. We all know something is not right when the PM doesn't seem to be around. There is no statement issued as to his whereabouts and there are no rebuttals to the very serious claims made by Deepak," PKR MP for Batu Tian Chua told Malaysia Chronicle.

Banking on sympathy votes from a confused Malay electorate

Najib took over as Umno president and the country's 6th prime minister in April 2009 after helping Mahathir and Muhyiddin to oust Abdullah Badawi who was blamed for the Umno-BN's weak performance in the 2008 elections. Now, and rather ironically, Najib may find himself toppled in much the same dismissive way that he had helped to pack Badawi off into the political wilderness.

It has been an open secret that Umno 'warlords' have been tussling for seats to contest at GE13, and Najib had used his prerogative as the decision-maker of the last resort to maintain the upperhand. And despite the myriad 'spin' by media advisers from both sides, it is well known that Najib and Rosmah wanted to call for polls only after the Umno-BN's full 5-year term was up, while Muhyiddin and Mahathir have pushed for elections to be held as early as last year.

When Muhyddin told the press at the turn of the new year it was better for the GE13 date to remain a 'mystery', it further bolstered the 'conspiracy theory' circulating around town that Najib would be bundled out soon. Muhyiddin would then take over and allow Parliament to expire undissolved, with the pro-BN Election Commission calling for nationwide polls only in June so as to allow the 'wounds' in Umno time to heal and the country - especially the predominant Malay electorate - to get used to the new PM at the helm.

"They are banking on Muhyiddin's pro-Malay image to shore up Umno-BN's hold on power as well as the Malays' fear of the unknown and sympathy for Najib's illness - if indeed he is ill - to help them," said Tian.

"We are now in uncharted zone because we don't know what tricks Umno-BN will pull to cling to power. Everything will depend on what announcements will be made in the next few days. We will get a clearer picture then."

Ambitious Muhyiddin & 'kamikaze' Dr M

In mid-December, political sources had told Malaysia Chronicle that Umno divisions in three states - Johor, Terengganu and Perak - had begun the ball rolling to get Najib to step down, citing his growing liability to the BN coalition because of his corruption scandals expecially in connection to the Scorpene submarines and the Altantuya Shaariibuu murder.

The tell-tale signs that infighting had reached a head came when rumors of racial riots were spread by several pro-UMNO bloggers. Coming eerily hot on the heels of warnings issued by Umno-linked leaders such as Ibrahim Ali and Shahrizat Jalil, the rumors fueled fear of a reprisal of the May 13, 1969 racial riots that left thousands injured and hundreds dead.

Creating public fear by using threats of racial riots to quell citizens and stop them from raising questions is a 'hallmark' tactic of Umno leaders to mask internal maneuverings. The May 13 riots have been exposed as an Umno conspiracy to oust its then president Tunku Abdul Rahman. It was a power tussle that catapulted Najib's dad Abdual Razak Hussein and Mahathir Mohamad into power.

As such, when the latest spate of May 13 rumours were set off recently, seasoned political watchers braced for another 'mutiny' in the topmost ranks of the Umno leadership.

Allowing Najib to make a 'graceful' exit

Umno watchers believe that Mahathir Mohamad, the main 'puppet master' in Umno, has decided to throw his weight behind Muhyiddin and effect an 11th-hour change in leadership although many have cautioned that such a move may boomerang and create even greater infighting in Umno.

Hence, the 'minor stroke' rumours to allow Najib to step down 'gracefully' on health reasons. Whether or not, Najib was really ill did not matter. As far as his rivals in Umno are concerned, poor health is merely the vehicle for Najib to 'surrender' his power.

"Mahathir is a kamikaze fighter. He doesn't need emergency laws or any law if he wants to do something. Look at how he dissolved the old UMNO and re-created UMNO Baru, look at how he threw Anwar Ibrahim into jail, declared all-out war on Abdullah Badawi," a veteran political observer had told Malaysia Chronicle last month.

"But the option of delaying GE13 and imposing martial law is out. The UMNO warlords know if they do that, they will really end up with nothing but jail and infamy. It is better to take a chance at the ballot boxes. After all, they have already done so much gerrymandering and they have so much wealth overseas, they might as well try their luck in the courts if the new regime prosecutes them for plundering."

"There's no doubt Mahathir is trying to change the PM to boost the morale in UMNO before going straight into GE13. He has always been the biggest gambler of them all. He is willing to put all his chips on winning big with Muhyiddin's pro-Malay image. To do that, they will stir up Malay sentiments. So far, there has only been rhetoric. Now we are hearing talk of racial clashes. It is therefore possible that what happens next will be actual incidents. The grapevine goes that they may stir up small incidents here and there to rally the Malays together and they could do this with the help of UMNO hot-heads and the Chinese and Indian underworld."

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