Analysis by Joceline Tan
The Star Online; 13 August 2008
There are many willing candidates but the top Umno leadership is still looking for someone special to take on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in Permatang Pauh.
WHEN Datuk Jalil Abdul Majid hitched a ride on the aircraft carrying Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak back to Kuala Lumpur last weekend, the local grapevine had it that Jalil was lobbying the Deputy Prime Minister to be the candidate in the Permatang Pauh by-election.
Jalil, who is Permatang Pauh division chief, insisted the plane ride had nothing to do with lobbying. He said that on that particular day, he had to be in two places at about the same time.
Najib, who was briefing the Permatang Pauh grassroots leaders, wanted Jalil present. At the same time, Jalil had to attend the Penang Umno liaison meeting in Putrajaya. He could not afford to skip the latter meeting because the Penang Umno chief is also the Prime Minister.
But lobbying among Umno politicians in Permatang Pauh has been intense so much so that some meetings have resulted in heated arguments and table-banging.
There are many potential candidates but there has been no clear-cut front-runner. Reporters initially thought that the Umno top guns were being tight-lipped and giving them the run-around, but in reality they have been scratching their heads for a suitable name.
It needs someone pretty special to take on a superstar like Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the fact that names are still being tossed around shows Umno has trouble looking for that special someone.
The situation was aptly depicted by a cartoon in a Chinese daily showing Anwar in the boxing ring against a shadowy figure with a question mark as a face.
However, at least five people in the division leadership are itching to take on Anwar. Apart from Jalil, they are deputy chief Datuk Pirdaus Ismail, vice-chief Datuk Nasir Abdullah, Seberang Jaya assemblyman Datuk Arif Shah Omar Shah and former division Umno Youth head Razak Osman.
But the five potential names also happen to be rivals in the division elections and the top Umno leadership's worry is that if one is picked the others may retaliate by resorting to sabotage.
As a result, the search for the right man had been extended to people who have roots in Permatang Pauh but are not involved in the division's internal politics. They include former Nibong Tebal MP Datuk Zainal Abidin Osman and former Tasik Gelugor MP Datuk Seri Shariff Omar.
PKR cross-over Ezam Mohd Noor was an early favourite but was quickly dismissed because he has yet to be accepted by Umno members and is not even from Penang.
Zainal has the best credentials among the lot and also a wide network of relatives in Permatang Pauh but he is on track to becoming the next Nibong Tebal division chief and is too shrewd to get entangled in Permatang Pauh politics.
Shariff, known for his macho political style, would have been quite suitable but he is in his mid-60s and may have trouble with the local Umno warlords.
Umno politics in Permatang Pauh has been trailing PKR and PAS since Anwar's expulsion from Umno. The subsequent batch of Umno politicians who took over have languished in the shadow of Anwar's glittering personality even when he was in jail.
They have not been able to stamp their own personality in the area or attract new talent to revive the constituency. The frustrating search for a suitable candidate in the last week is testimony to the dilemma.
The conventional wisdom is that Umno may have to fall back to tradition and select from the division line-up. There will be some degree of retaliation from those who failed to make it but the campaign has the luxury of also relying on the party's national machinery.
The decision on the candidate is likely to be made on Thursday and the name will have to be announced by Friday.
After that, Permatang Pauh's version of the Olympics can begin.