Umno faces tough choice in by-election

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 14 — Umno faces a tough decision in choosing its candidate for a key upcoming by-election, with the Election Commission set to announce the date for the contest today.

The overwhelming favourite for the Bagan Pinang seat in Negeri Sembilan is a controversial party stalwart, but Umno is still keeping its options open. The by-election will be the ninth held since last year’s general election.

Yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin maintained that the party had not received an official list of possible candidates. Previously, he had said that he hoped more than one name would be submitted.

The favourite — former Umno vice- president Tan Sri Isa Samad, 59 — is an experienced politician who enjoys unequivocal support on the ground. However, the former Negeri Sembilan menteri besar does come with baggage. In 2004, he was suspended for three years for buying votes during party polls.

Isa is reportedly the only candidate nominated by the Umno division for Teluk Kemang, the parliamentary constituency Bagan Pinang falls in.

“Bagan Pinang is to Isa Samad what Permatang Pauh is to Anwar Ibrahim,” political analyst Agus Yusoff told The Straits Times, referring to the formidable stronghold of the opposition leader.

“It’ll be very difficult for Umno not to choose Isa.”

Still, being popular in the party does not mean being popular with the people, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak told Malaysian Indian Congress delegates two days ago. The message seems timely for his own party as well.

Picking Isa would suggest that Umno has a dire lack of talent, analysts said.

Having a tainted politician represent Umno also would not bode well for a party trying to win back voters alienated by corruption and cronyism.

“If the division insists on this candidate, it might be a repeat of the Rohaizat saga in Permatang Pasir,” political analyst Khoo Kay Peng wrote on his blog.

Rohaizat Othman was Umno’s pick for its last by-election, which it lost. News emerged early in the campaign that he was a disbarred lawyer, and the party had to repeatedly defend his credibility.

Another sign that choosing Isa might not be the best move is the opposition’s unusual eagerness to see him run for the seat, with Datuk Seri Anwar proclaiming that Pakatan Rakyat would not exploit Isa’s tainted past.

Umno’s concern is that Isa’s supporters will sabotage the campaign if he is not picked, Agus noted.

Isa has not denied that he is keen to run for the seat.

Last week, he dismissed the suggestion that he would be a liability if he was fielded. At least he was not a criminal, he said, in an apparent reference to Anwar, who served time in jail.

One compromise has been suggested — fielding Isa’s son Najib. However, at 32, he is arguably too young.

Bagan Pinang has about 14,000 constituents, with Malays making up 66 per cent, Chinese 10.5 per cent and Indians 19.9 per cent.

The by-election was called when the assemblyman died earlier this month.

Umno won the seat by about 2,000 votes in the last general election, but it will be looking to improve on that figure.

“This is a stronghold for Umno, and nothing less than a bigger majority will do,” said Agus.

“But if they really choose not to field Isa, then they will have to win his heart.” —  The Straits Times