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Najibs climb up the Umno ladder &#8212 with a helping hand from Anwar

Anwar Ibrahim's meteoric rise up the Umno heirarchy until he was considered the unstoppable heir apparent to the highest office of the state was not achieved without some astute political moves on his part.

Anwar first gained a major post in Umno by challenging the party's Youth chief Suhaimi Kamaruddin in 1982. Suhaimi was in his second term as Umno Youth leader. Both he and Anwar were deputy ministers.

When Anwar was persuaded to go for the Youth top post, he did not hesitate. Eventually, he won the post by 10 votes and went on to initiate several revamps, among which was the implementation of the Islamisation programme. He repeatedly reminded leaders at all levels in the wing to strictly observe the teachings of Islam.

The Youth exco then, who were comfortably entrenched in their worldly life, feared that they could be kicked out in due time with the winds of change. Their shaky ground was made worse when Anwar appointed leaders from the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement or Abim to sit in several committees in Umno Youth.

There was a serious friction between Anwar and the Youth exco who continued to feel threatened by the presence of Abim leaders. The present Melaka chief minister and state Umno chief Mohd Rustam Ali was one of those who felt pressured.

However, when Najib Abdul Razak appeared on the scene, the situation changed. Najib had made a remarkable impression in Umno Youth after he won the Pekan parliamentary seat in Pahang, and later become the deputy chief of the wing.

In order to 'purge off' Anwar, a group of Youth members agreed to bait Anwar into contesting the vice presidency (VP) post. With Youth delegates contributing about 30 percent of the delegates' votes in the supreme council election, Anwar stood a very good chance of winning one of the three elected VP seats.

Najib had also supported the idea because not only would it 'push' Anwar out of the Youth scene, but also prop him up to replace Anwar as the Youth chief. As a bonus, by virtue of his newly assumed position as the Youth chief, Najib would also automatically occupy one of the two appointed vice presidency seats, with the other reserved for the Umno Wanita chief. This would automatically elevate Najib's standing in the party to that of a senior leader.

Though Anwar realised from the start the move to get him out of the Youth wing, he also knew that this 'strategy' would also push him higher up the leadership ladder, so he agreed to accept nomination for the VP post.

As expected, Anwar received an impressive number of nominations and eventually got elected as a VP in the 1990 party election. Najib, too, has formulated his strategy very well, and was later elected to replace Anwar uncontested.

'Wawasan' piggyback

In 1993, the same 'piggybacking' scenario existed when Anwar formed a "Wawasan team" (vision team) to vie for the deputy president's post in that year's party election. The team composed of, as expected, Najib, Muhammad Muhd Taib and Muhyiddin Yassin to contest for the three elected VP posts, and Abdul Rahim Tamby Chik to aim for the Youth chief's post.

As then Pahang menteri besar, Najib managed to mobilise Pahang delegates to vote for the Wawasan team, while Taib, as chairperson of the Selangor Umno liaison committee, secured the support of most of the state Umno delegates.

As for Rahim, he was expected to woo the support from Melaka delegates who were then divided between Anwar and the incumbent deputy president Ghafar Baba.

Muhyiddin also successfully garnered support from Johor delegates. A well-planned political manoeuvring by the Wawasan team bore fruit. Anwar managed to secure more than 90 percent of the nominations, leaving Ghafar with only seven percent.

Ghafar later announced his withdrawal from the contest, and Najib, Taib and Muhyiddin were later elected as VPs. Apparently, there was always a link between Najib and Anwar's rise in the party hierarchy.

This was obvious, too, after Anwar was sacked from the party and the government in 1998. Since then Najib seemed to have sunk into oblivion; even his Cabinet appointment as defence minister did not help much.

And Najib got a real scare in the 1999 general election when he retained his Pekan seat only by a majority of 231 votes. Many observers believe that his narrow victory reflected the disapproval of Anwar's supporters in Umno after Najib openly backed party president Dr Mahathir Mohamad when the rift between the top two culminated with the sacking of Anwar.

They accused Najib of being ungrateful to Anwar whom they claimed had done a lot to help Najib climb up the Umno ladder.

So as much as current deputy premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi needs to solidify his support base, Najib, too, has much to do to cover lost ground. And this common need of both probably makes them the 'perfect couple'.

This is the third part of a four-part series produced in conjunction with the Umno annual general meeting which is being held at the Putra World Trade Centre for four days beginning yesterday.