Analysts: Khairy has the edge in Sabah but…

Tomorrow, Umno holds its first presidential election since 1987. (Reuters pic)

KOTA KINABALU: Three of the five Umno presidential candidates visited Sabah this week to rally support from Sabah members ahead of the party polls tomorrow, but analysts believe Khairy Jamaluddin has a slight edge over his challengers.

Khairy, who is former Umno Youth chief, is expected to face tough competition from party veteran Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and acting president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

Arnold Puyok.

However, political scientist Arnold Puyok said Khairy was favoured by the younger generation who saw him as Umno’s future leader.

Puyok, who is deputy dean of Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, told FMT that Tengku Razaleigh, better known as Ku Li, was also “quite likeable” as he was seen as a progressive Malay who had worked with Sabah leaders before.

“But Khairy’s plan to give more autonomy for Sabah Umno is most interesting. This is by far the most bold suggestion as far as autonomy for Sabah is concerned,” he said.

During his session, Khairy had spoken of his plans for political autonomy for Sabah Umno and a fixed vice-presidency post if he wins in tomorrow’s polls.

Ku Li, meanwhile, had promised to look into the full implementation of the Malaysia Agreement 1963 (MA63) if he is elected.

Tony Paridi Bagang, who lectures at Universiti Teknologi Mara, said Khairy was seen as a pragmatic candidate.

Tony Paridi Bagang.

“He has new ideas and is seen to be daring in doing things out of the box. He is popular among the youth and those who share progressive ideas.”

Bagang said these factors could give Khairy an added advantage in the race for the top post, adding that his emphasis on giving more power to Sabah Umno indicated his recognition that the state Umno was completely different from the party in the peninsula.

“If this proposal is accepted and materialises, Sabah Umno will have quite a significant voice in the party, especially at the national level,” he said.

Universiti Malaysia Sabah lecturer Lee Kuok Tiung meanwhile told FMT that it was a toss-up between Khairy and Zahid for the Umno presidency.

However, he warned that Khairy would face an uphill task in gaining the support of older members.

MA63, all talk?

Lee also brushed aside Ku Li’s pledge to restore MA63, saying the issue was also played up during the last election.

“Look at the 14th general election (GE14) – politicians just manipulated it to gain support. After GE14, they didn’t walk the talk.

Lee Kuok Tiung.

“With Umno as a party alone, there’s nothing much that can be done. You must be in power, meaning you must form the government – then only can you talk about autonomy,” he added.

Bagang agreed, saying Ku Li’s sudden interest in MA63 could raise eyebrows.

“Many Sabahans may wonder why he is only bringing up MA63 now, as he has not spoken about it for so long,” he said.

He added however that Ku Li’s long experience in Umno as well as his image of being detached from former prime minister Najib Razak’s baggage could work in his advantage.

As for Zahid, Bagang said his efforts to connect Umno and Usno to win the confidence of members could backfire.

“No doubt there are still core supporters of Usno, which could be effective in retaining party loyalists.

“However, there might be some members, especially from the younger generation, who are more inclined to see change in Umno,” he said.

No easy task for Umno in Sabah

Regardless of who wins the Umno presidency, the analysts said the victor would have his work cut out for him in reviving Umno in Sabah.

Puyok said Umno would struggle to prove its relevance in the state as many Sabahans were now inclined towards local parties.

“The president’s biggest challenge is how to make Umno more people-friendly and relevant to Sabah’s political context,” he said, adding that Umno should not be seen as a dominant player.

Bagang meanwhile said the next president would need to tackle the negative perceptions of Umno, such as the “asal bukan Umno” movement, before even thinking of regaining the people’s trust.

For Lee, on the other hand, the challenge was even more basic than that.

“The biggest challenge will be to make sure Umno exists in Sabah,” he said.