KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling party held elections Saturday with the son of former strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad seeking a top post that could put him on the fast-track to future national leadership.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is unopposed as president of the powerful United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), giving him more time to deliver on his cautious pledges to reform a party confronted by ebbing support after dominating Malaysia for 56 years.
But political observers say Najib's reform plans face increasing resistance from conservatives, and that the contests for three vice presidential slots could indicate who has the upper hand.
All eyes are now on Mukhriz Mahathir, 48, a rising political star who is running for party vice president and whom analysts expect will seek to protect his conservative father's legacy.
A win by Mukhriz could signal a tough road for Najib's reform agenda, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"Najib would be spending most of his time guarding his position (from conservatives), which will be under subtle but solid attack," he said.
Mahathir, now 88 and retired, is revered by many in the Muslim Malay ethnic majority for championing their rights and overseeing rapid economic growth during his iron-fisted 1981-2003 tenure.
But he is loathed by opponents who accuse him of trampling civil rights and continuing to stir the politics of racial division after his supposed retirement.
Mukhriz, whose appointment as chief minister of Mahathir's home state of Kedah in May, boosted speculation about his future, has been much less divisive.
He has said UMNO must transform to remain relevant to voters, but is believed to remain popular with right-wingers due to his pedigree.
Analysts have speculated a political deal could be in the works, with Mahathir and his conservative backers pushing for a promise that Mukhriz be made prime minister one day.
The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, through which UMNO rules, has been winning elections by diminishing margins as voters tyre of its race-based politics and authoritarian rule.
Najib, now 60 and in office since 2009, has responded by positioning himself as a political and economic reformer.
But he has already backtracked on some key reform moves disliked by conservatives and is seen as under heightened pressure following May elections, in which Barisan was returned to power but put in its worst polls showing ever.
A total of 146,500 party delegates were eligible to vote Saturday. Results were expected late in the evening.