Politically speaking, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has had an amazing year in the sense that, over the last few months, he has come to be seen as the presumptive deputy president nominee of Umno.
THE wheels are in motion to position Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamid as the next deputy president of Umno.
The Umno election is only expected after the general election but his supporters want to “chup” (the local slang for reserve) the post for him. There have been various moves going on in the background to ensure that he will win the No. 2 post in Umno without a contest.
When asked about it, the Deputy Prime Minister flashed his megawatt smile and refused to go anywhere near the subject.
But he continued smiling so broadly that his eyes disappeared and that was when we decided to check if his feet were resting on cloud nine. But his stockinged feet – it is shoes off at his 7th floor PWTC office – were firmly on the carpeted floor.
He was obviously aware that the Perak Umno liaison committee had discussed the matter and had reached a consensus that the No. 2 post in the party should go uncontested. In other words, his homestate is making a pre-emptive move to back him.
Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, who is a fellow Perakian, has gone a step further. The Padang Rengas MP declared that his division wants to table a motion on it at the Umno general assembly this week.
It will probably not be allowed given that the party leadership wants the general election to be the focus of this year’s general assembly. But Nazri had achieved what he wanted – he has set the ball rolling and people have started talking about it.
For instance, said social commentator Dr Azmi Omar: “It has been raining non-stop in Kuala Terengganu. But people were not talking about floods in the coffeeshop, they were talking about Zahid.”
Dr Ahmad Zahid is the first Perakian to rise so high in Umno and Perak Umno is not letting the opportunity slip from their hands. His new post has brought prestige to the state and an air of hope in Bagan Datuk, his parliamentary constituency.
Pressed on whether he is ready to become the next Umno deputy president, he said: “It will be addressed next year (at the party election). The PM and I are two interested parties, we appreciate what people are doing but our priority is the general election.”
Dr Ahmad Zahid was huddled with his speech-writing team on the day of his interview with a delegation from The Star. It will be his second time addressing the joint opening of his party’s Wanita, Pemuda and Puteri wings.
It was still quite a sensitive time in Umno when he made his maiden speech last year. He had just come up on the back of Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin’s misfortune, nerves were still fragile and he had to tread carefully.
The mood will be different this year, the ripples caused by the exit of Muhyiddin and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal have passed, and the enemy line is clearly drawn.
Dr Ahmad Zahid will be asking the three wings to defend the party against the opposition coalition now led by their former president Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Politically speaking, he has had an amazing year in the sense that, over the last few months, he has come to be seen as the presumptive deputy president nominee of Umno.
A lot of it had to do with the way he put on his boxing gloves and went for Dr Mahathir when the Umno division meetings took off in August.
He was well-placed to criticise Dr Mahathir because he does not owe anything to the former premier who had tried to squash the younger man’s political career and even put him under the ISA.
He officiated at a total of 38 division meetings – a record of sorts – where he defended his president and party against the man whom he claimed used to be known as “Mahathir a/l Iskandar Kutty”.
When he came under attack for that, his big boss came out and defended him to the hilt, calling him my “long-time friend” and elaborating on their long political ties. It was the first time that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak had described anyone in the party this way and it sent out a strong signal that Dr Ahmad Zahid was his man.
“That is not the only reason why he deserves to be up there. Zahid is not as polished as Najib or Hisham (Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein) but he is an instinctive type of politician with a superb feel of the ground. He has been quite tireless when it comes to organising and party work,” said Air Putih assemblyman Wan Hakim Wan Mokhtar.
He has also taken over some of the legwork that Najib previously had to do on his own.
His ability to get along with everyone has also been useful to Najib, and he is said to have helped eased the friction and brokered a working truce between two ministers with somewhat overlapping portfolios.
To put it simply, he has made a good effort to fill the gap left behind by his predecessor.
Asked about his recent meeting with Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim who is recovering from a shoulder operation, he said it was purely a social call, and there is nothing political happening behind the scenes.
He also dismissed speculation of an electoral pact between Umno and PAS, saying that ties had grown warmer but the two parties would contest the general election as competitors.
Then again, as they say in politics, never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.
On his relationship with Najib, he said: “He is not only my leader and my boss, I regard him as my brother although he is younger than me by six months.”
He reminded everyone that he was Najib’s first political secretary when the latter was appointed Youth and Sports Minister in the 1980s. He said they had a continuous political connection and he remained an “unofficial political secretary” to Najib even after he himself became Umno Youth chief in 1996.
“Even now, I sometimes joke to my friends that I am the DPM but I still feel I am his political secretary,” he said.
He insisted he is not ambitious when asked whether he sees himself as Prime Minister one day.
Then he added: “I have said before, I only eat what is on my plate. I never take food from another person’s plate. Being ambitious is not in my dictionary.”
The man doth protest too much because he denied being ambitious three or four times. But his allegiance to Najib has passed the litmus test.
In the run-up to the Umno election of 2009, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was about to make way for Najib, wanted Dr Ahmad Zahid to challenge Muhyiddin for the No. 2 post in Umno.
Dr Ahmad Zahid had just returned from his umrah when Pak Lah called him to his office. When the then prime minister asked him to contest the deputy presidency, Dr Ahmad Zahid had replied: “Pak Lah, don’t play-play, this is not an ordinary post.”
Pak Lah had then told him in a stern voice: “I am the president and prime minister, I am ordering you to contest.”
He told Pak lah that he had to speak to Najib first.
“I remember that Najib was sitting down in his office in a double breasted jacket. When I told him, he stood up, buttoned his jacket and sat down again. I remember thinking: this is not like Najib at all.
“He told me that if I go for VP (vice-president), no question I will make it, but that the deputy president contest is a different ball game.
“He also said he had already promised to support Muhyiddin. He did not ask me to pull back but I understood it meant I should not run,” said Dr Ahmad Zahid.
He returned to apologise profusely to Pak Lah, saying that Najib had not stopped him but that the VP post was more suitable.
He used the Malay saying “saya nak ukur baju di badan sendiri” (fit the coat to one’s body), a reference to knowing one’s own abilities.
Pak Lah was disappointed but took it like a gentleman and said that he would respect the decision.
The rest is history and Umno history might have been quite different if he had gone ahead and challenged Muhyiddin because the widespread opinion then was that he would have beaten Muhyiddin.
The Malays like to talk about “nasib” or destiny, that if you are meant to have something, you will eventually get it and that seems to be case for Dr Ahmad Zahid. On a more serious note, it also means that Najib is now into his second Deputy Prime Minister. Let’s hope he is not aiming to break Dr Mahathir’s record.
Dr Ahmad Zahid’s political career has had its ups and downs and not many thought that the son of a village ustaz from a sleepy hollow in Bagan Datuk could come this far. The No. 2 job is a morning till night type of job, and his life has changed in ways that he could not have imagined.
But as he sat down for a quick lunch with The Star after the interview, it was clear that you can take the man out of the kampung but it is hard to take the kampung out of the man.
After eating with his fingers, he reached out for a glass of water – not to drink from it but to rinse his fingers, pouring the water onto his plate. Then he sort of mopped his face with the napkin and excused himself to go off and perform zohor prayers.
Some things do not change but it is things like this which bond him to his grassroots supporters – they see him as one of them, a common man, down-to-earth and unpretentious. He is their kampung boy made good.