KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 28 — Barely had the Permatang Pauh results been announced, fingers were already being pointed at Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi for failing to stop the advance of opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim.
Abdullah, who won a reprieve after promising to retire in 2010, is facing renewed calls to resign from his most trenchant critics in Umno — the main component of the Barisan Nasional — after the ruling coalition failed dismally in the by-election on Tuesday.
But Abdullah dismissed the loss yesterday as nothing significant, saying that it did not signal a trend.
He said: “What happened in Permatang Pauh was not something so big as to change the situation that exists after the last general election.”
Two other senior Umno leaders, Information Minister Datuk Ahmad Shabery Cheek and Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar, also tried to downplay the loss.
Ahmad Shabery said Anwar's win did not threaten the government while Syed Hamid said it was time to move on.
Umno vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also Trade and Industry Minister, however said BN should not take the defeat lightly as he was concerned it would become a trend.
Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was the first to fire the salvo against the PM, with a statement issued mere hours after Anwar won the by-election with a bigger majority despite BN's aggressive campaign.
“It is time to face the music: it is we who have been buried,” Tengku Razaleigh said, clearly referring to the much-publicised boast of Abdullah's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, before the poll that Umno had come to Permatang Pauh to bury Anwar.
Tengku Razaleigh, who is challenging Abdullah for the Umno presidency, said the scraps of credibility held by the PM and his deputy Datuk Seri Najib Razak are gone.
“He does not have the minimal credibility needed to run the country day by day, let alone to take it in the new directions we need to go in a complex world. He may not have the credibility needed to keep the country together.
“This dangerous situation cannot continue, and it will not,” he said.
Since Abdullah announced two months ago that he would hand over power to Najib by mid-2010, the calls for his resignation had tapered off, although there remained a lot of grumbling on the ground.
A senior Umno leader said he believed that if Abdullah insisted on carrying on for another two years, the damage could become irreversible by the time of the handover.
The collapse of BN's famed election machinery in Permatang Pauh is a grim indication. Infighting had resulted in a fragmented campaign, with Umno leaders more interested in furthering their own political battles in the party.
Umno Youth leader Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, another outspoken critic of Abdullah, yesterday said the vote was as much a victory for Anwar as a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
“It is a rejection of our leadership, and if there is no change, we will be faced with a change of government sooner than we expect,” he told The Straits Times.
He said the transition plan has to be “thrown out of the window”, and it is up to the Umno grassroots to decide whether they want Najib to take over.
His father, former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, said it was not Anwar who won the by-election, but that BN had lost it. He said the BN leadership should take note of the strong message sent by voters.
While the focus is currently on Abdullah, eventually the guns will also be trained on Najib, who led the BN machinery.
The deputy premier was badly handicapped in the campaign, with the opposition hurling allegations of corruption and his involvement in the murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu.
The recriminations will stir up anger among the Umno grassroots as the party's 191 powerful divisions start their annual meetings in October. This is a crucial time as the divisions nominate candidates for party elections.
A candidate must secure at least 30 per cent, or 58 nominations, to run for the presidency. Traditionally, Umno divisions rarely rock the boat, and it is uncertain if they will do so now.
“The charade is over. This could be the beginning of the end of this once powerful party,” wrote an online news portal The Malaysian Insider. —Straits Times Singapore