Relief for UMNO in Terengganu

KUALA LUMPUR - Three rebel Terengganu assemblymen including the sacked menteri besar returned to Umno yesterday, defusing a crisis that had threatened to topple the Barisan Nasional (BN) government in the oil-rich Malaysian state.

But the two-day rebellion has spotlighted a major problem of UMNO renewal facing Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is moving to strengthen his grip on the country's biggest political party.

He was planning to replace at least one other chief minister and bring new faces into the Cabinet. The rebellion has shown that he will have to spend more energy to appease the powerful chieftains in Umno, the lead party of the 13-member BN coalition that governs Malaysia.

Former Terengganu menteri besar Ahmad Said who was replaced on Monday suddenly quit UMNO, taking two other assemblymen with him and risking fresh elections in the east coast state where BN had 17 seats against the 15 held by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) alliance.

The sudden resignations had reduced BN to 14 seats against the opposition's 15 in the state assembly. But Datuk Seri Ahmad and the two assemblymen yesterday returned to UMNO after a series of frantic phone calls and meetings with party leaders.

Mr Ahmad has now pledged support for PM Najib following a phone call. "He (Mr Najib) apologised to me for the misunderstanding and I also apologised for my actions," Mr Ahmad told a press conference yesterday, Malaysiakini reported.

Mr Ahmad was replaced after six years as chief minister, to take the blame for the poor performance of Terengganu BN in the general election last year, when it won the state by just two seats in the 32-seat legislature.

Meanwhile, the new Menteri Besar, Datuk Seri Ahmad Razif Abdul Rahman, clocked in yesterday as chief executive in charge of Terengganu's annual oil and gas revenue of more than RM800 million (S$310 million).

Analysts say the crisis highlighted a weak spot for Datuk Seri Najib as he tries to renew UMNO's leadership ahead of the 2018 general election, after weak performances in the 2008 and 2013 polls.

"Ahmad Said was an attempt to rectify that and have the new guy to change and win back public support," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian of the respected Merdeka Centre pollster.

The Terengganu rebellion signals more difficult battles ahead for Mr Najib as tries to bring in new faces, said political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin of Universiti Teknologi MARA.

He pointed in particular to Pahang and Negeri Sembilan, whose chief ministers have served more than 10 years, as states where the Umno leadership is believed to be mulling over changes.

"Besides his top leaders, there are many younger yet influential leaders in the states and divisions bringing lots of challenges to those who have served a long time," Dr Shaharuddin said.

This article was published on May 15 in The Straits Times.

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