THE health of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi has been a trending topic amid speculation that he may be riding into the sunset.
Politicians love publicity but matters surrounding their health tend to be shrouded in secrecy.
No details were made available about the nature of his health issues apart from the fact that he had surgery but he has returned to work. But when information is withheld, rumours ferment and there have been unverified claims that it is prostate cancer.
Well, the thing is that Ahmad Zahid has never looked better going by the photos he has posted on social media.
He looked rested and relaxed when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim called on him at his Country Heights home. The photo of the pair looking so cosy, seated on matching leather armchairs was a powerful signal of the trust and friendship between them.
The Umno president is Anwar’s most reliable link to Umno or, as a news portal put it, the “master key to the Madani government’s survival”.
Should Anwar be worried about Ahmad Zahid stepping off the political stage? Will whoever come after Ahmad Zahid be as supportive of PMX or as enthusiastic about the unity government?
The Umno president has also been hinting of retirement intentions at his “Jelajah Akar Umbi” sessions. These closed-door sessions are for him to meet the division grassroots to explain what the party is going through and what lies ahead.
“The signals are expressed differently at different places but it does suggest that he is aware that it is time to call it a day,” said a key aide to a Johor leader.
Ahmad Zahid picked a Deepavali event at his Bagan Datuk home base to drop the first hint that he may be at the end of his service after seven terms as their MP. But the old fox that he is, he added a caveat that Bagan Datuk must first be developed and achieve zero poverty.
According to the Johor aide, Ahmad Zahid knows the Umno grassroots expects to hear something new in his divisional tour.
Knowing that they are bored with the same old story about supporting Anwar and the unity government, he lets secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki warm up the audience before he himself steps up with something different for the crowd to chew on.
Supreme council member Datuk Seri Alwi Che Ahmad, a guest at the Jelebu division gathering, was taken aback when Ahmad Zahid alluded to retiring.
Ahmad Zahid told the Jelebu audience that he wished to see Umno win 70-80 seats in the next general election. He said if Umno is able to come back as the biggest bloc, it can reclaim the prime minister post and “we will be the PM again”.
Then he added ever so casually: “When that time comes, it won’t be me.”
“Zahid knows our worry is the Malays outside of Umno who want to see Umno change and correct itself. He is thinking ahead, his good friend is now the PM, his court cases are settled and he needs to look after his health.
“He is sending a good signal but we must not push him. He is not going tomorrow but when he is ready,” said Alwi.
Ahmad Zahid and Alwi, who is the former Kok Lanas assemblyman, enjoy a certain camaraderie and during an event in Gua Musang last month, both men exchanged tips on how they coped with their respective back problems.
“Retirement may not be a dirty word because Umno’s survival rests on a new leadership. Zahid understands his limitations. He’s been in politics long enough to know he is unpopular.
“He retained his seat by just a few hundred votes and loud boos from the crowd at the recent Motor GP event were all too real,” said political commentator Ivanpal S. Grewal.
According to Ivanpal, it will present a chance for Umno to renew and remake itself into a party that is more representative of what Malaysia has become.
“Umno lacks dynamism after so many years in power. But if Zahid goes, change is inevitable and it is up to the new leadership to go as far as it can to restore the party,” said Ivanpal.
The question is who is the leader that can lead the party to recovery?
“The timeline may not be determined by Zahid or even Umno. It is an open secret that everyone is talking about what will happen when the new king arrives in town,” said the above aide to a Johor leader.
The political instability of the past few years has seen the royal houses assume a more assertive role and the Johor Sultan is bound to bring his own style and opinions.
Those in the corridors of power claim that Ahmad Zahid’s reported political exit may have something to do with the rotation of the throne. It is also in this context that there is speculation of a soft landing for Ahmad Zahid in the form of an appointment as the next Governor of Melaka where his wife was born.
Meanwhile, a different kind of whispering is going on in the corridors of the Umno headquarters at Menara Dato Onn.
“What I am hearing is that if Ahmad Zahid does go off, there ought to be a mini party election for the posts of president and deputy president,” said the above aide to a Johor Umno leader.
The last party election in March saw Ahmad Zahid and Datuk Seri Mohamed Hasan retain their posts without a contest, causing dissatisfaction within the rank-and-file. The logic is that the next president must be elected by the party grassroots. Only with such a mandate will he earn the respect and support of the party members.
However, said lawyer and Umno politician Ainul Aizat Ahmad Ishak, it is complicated because hierarchy is important in a party like Umno and the president has always stressed procedures.
Asyraf confirmed that the Umno president will resume his tour of the Umno divisions next week. Will he drop more hints in the coming months or will he change his mind about going?
It ought to be stressed that Ahmad Zahid’s exit will not deliver a miraculous recovery for Umno and it is a long and winding road ahead for the party.
Window opens for Zahid to ride off into the sunset – but at Anwar’s cost
Sources within Umno have not ruled out strong speculation since last month about a so-called “exit plan” for Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a move that could pave the way for his political retirement having survived more than a year of pressure from party comrades to step down as president.
The sources told MalaysiaNow that Zahid’s recent health scare which necessitated surgery, details of which have not been disclosed to the public, had given him a window of opportunity to give up his party and government posts.
But with Zahid gone, questions about the survival of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – the man whose lifelong political ambition was fulfilled thanks to the Umno president – will inevitably be raised.
“The open secret is that Zahid forced his hand as the Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman to get MPs to back Anwar.
“Now that he is somewhat a free man, those close to him have been advising him to devise an exit plan, as continuing to sit at the top is not going to look good both for him and the party,” said a former close aide to a top Umno leader.
Speculation of Zahid’s exit had swirled even before news of his surgery on Nov 16.
The deputy prime minister had been largely out of the limelight since his party’s disastrous performance in the six state elections in August, where Umno under his leadership was trounced for the second time by Perikatan Nasional (PN) in its quest for critical Malay support.
Umno won only 19 of the 108 state seats it contested, its second disastrous outing since the general election last year which saw the party losing its traditional strongholds to PN.
Both defeats were followed by vocal calls for Zahid to give up his post. While he had acknowledged the protests, he gave no indication that he would step down.
“I am aware of such calls. What I can pledge is that I, with the help of the party’s leadership, will do more to regain the people’s confidence,” he had said after the August elections.
Many Umno leaders at both the central and state levels, including at least two in the federal Cabinet, told MalaysiaNow that while pressure had been maintained on Zahid, his current medical condition and absence from official duty had only renewed the calls for him to vacate the top position.
“More than three months have passed (since the state elections), and there has not been any indication that Umno can regain our ground at the next general election.
“In fact, the bad economic vibes released by the Madani government make it harder for us to make a comeback,” an Umno elected representative from a southern state told MalaysiaNow on condition of anonymity, referring to the coalition government of Pakatan Harapan and BN.
He expressed confidence that Zahid would be “on the way out in the very near future”, adding that this was a “foregone conclusion”.
“It would be suicidal for him to stay on, especially now that he is, at the moment at least, off the hook,” he added, referring to the controversial decision to stop Zahid’s criminal trial by invoking the powers of the attorney-general to grant a DNAA.
But any such move by Zahid would mean a blow to Anwar, said a PKR leader and former MP.
“After one year of holding on to the top office minus Malay support, losing the man who ensured his prime ministerial dream was fulfilled would be the beginning of another political nightmare for Anwar,” she added.
Zahid was instrumental in ensuring Anwar’s appointment as prime minister, forcing BN MPs to back the PH chairman following the hung parliament in the aftermath of the general election last year.
Among others, letters of undertaking signed by MPs were used as a threat that they would lose their seats if they went against party instructions.
“With Zahid gone, there are not many trustworthy Anwarists around – indeed, there are none,” said the same former MP who had served a constituency in the Klang Valley.
There is also talk that Anwar might not be keen to fill the vacancy left by Zahid with Mohamad Hasan, as the Umno deputy president enjoys no clout outside of Negeri Sembilan where he once thrived as menteri besar.
“The fact is, Tok Mat has been eyeing the number two post in a bid to strengthen himself in Umno, but I don’t think Anwar is going to risk putting someone with no influence in Umno,” said an Umno source.
Mohamad meanwhile denied talk of Zahid being on his way out.
“These are merely rumours,” he told MalaysiaNow in a brief reply.
Among party insiders, it is known that Mohamad and Zahid do not see eye-to-eye.
“But with Zahid around, Tok Mat seems to be taking the brunt of criticism as he had to continue defending Umno’s cooperation with PH, especially with DAP,” said the source.
Umno’s cooperation with DAP leaders in the federal coalition government is widely seen as the bane of its efforts to regain its Malay base.
Before the elections, Mohamad was among the most vocal in rejecting any form of cooperation with not only DAP, but also any other party, telling members that Umno should be in the driving seat.
But earlier this year, Mohamad told delegates at the Umno general assembly that DAP was more sincere than PN.
“At the next Umno assembly, he cannot go with that argument any more,” said the Umno source.
While details of Zahid’s “exit plan” have been scarce, questions have been raised on whether the Umno leader will be “rewarded”, whether through a ceremonial position in a state or chairmanship of a major government-linked company.
However, many party leaders believe he has no need for either in order to enjoy a quiet retirement.
“Whatever the plan is, now may be the best time for Zahid to exit. He has, after all, done his job for Anwar and now it’s time to look after himself.
“This recent health scare may come as a suitable excuse,” said the Umno MP.