PETALING JAYA - The battle for the Umno vice-presidency is set to be a cliffhanger with only one clear winner in sight - incumbent Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, which leaves the other five candidates fighting for the two remaining spots.
The odds appear to be even for the five vying to be the second echelon in Umno.
While many are predicting that Dr Ahmad Zahid will easily secure one of the three positions, the large number of voting delegates - totalling 146,500 - has made it hard to predict who will fill the two remaining slots.
Last Saturday's elections saw delegates give sweeping victories to Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and Wanita head Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil, leaving the impression that the power of incumbency may favour Dr Ahmad Zahid as well as Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein and Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal.
However, the overwhelming response by delegates towards Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir and Datuk Seri Ali Rustam at the party's meet-the-candidates roadshow suggests that there could be changes to the status quo.
While Mukhriz, Ali and Tan Sri Mohd Isa Abdul Samad may be the challengers, they are all political heavyweights, making the outcome tough to predict.
Mukhriz is the youngest of the six candidates and is seen as the face of change in Umno. The popularity of his father Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also helped his campaign.
Dr Ahmad Zahid, who was the top vice-president in the 2009 Umno election, is riding a wave of popularity after his tough and no-nonsense stance on crime.
Hishammuddin is credited with heading the committee that introduced the new election format giving an opportunity to more party members to decide on the leadership.
Shahrizat praised him at a Wanita gathering yesterday but stopped short of openly endorsing him unlike Khairy who gave him an unqualified endorsement and said the movement would support his re-election. The backing from the two wings will be crucial as they make up about 40% of the voters.
Shafie's portfolio as a two-term Rural and Regional Development Minister has made him popular among the country's Malay rural community, including many in the party grassroots.
Former Malacca Chief Minister Ali has gone on a platform of defending the position of the Malays, religion and the country.
Isa has been enjoying a new high profile as Felda chairman. More than 50 Umno divisions are involved in Felda schemes and that is where his strength lies.
Dr Ahmad Zahid said support from the delegates would enable him to carry out his heavy responsibilities as Home Minister in these challenging times.
Hishammuddin has been on a tireless mission throughout the country to clear misconceptions that he was a weak leader and to explain his role during the Lahad Datu incident.
Shafie said he was not just relying on support from his home state and was confident that Umno members in the peninsula appreciate the role Sabah Umno played in delivering seats during GE13.
Mukhriz and Ali said all the candidates had their strong points, putting them on almost equal footing in the eyes of the voters.
Isa urged delegates to vote for leaders who will remain loyal to the party through its ups and downs.