Umno vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi talks about where the party and ruling coalition stand ahead of the looming general election.
THERE are many pictures on the wall of Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s office in Putrajaya but one stands out, a framed copy of The Star’s Page 1 from Aug 2, 2015.
The big story that day was the exclusive interview he gave shortly after being appointed deputy prime minister.
That framed front page was the first thing he pointed out to Star Media Group Bhd’s group managing director and chief executive officer Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai when he sat down with The Star for an interview recently.
Dr Ahmad Zahid noted that the headline of the front page – “I’ll be firm and fair” – still sums up his approach as he is about to complete two years as the No. 2 leader of the country.
The recent interview is in conjunction with Umno’s 71st anniversary that will be celebrated on Thursday with a gathering of more than 120,000 party faithful at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium.
Unlike a 25th (silver jubilee) or 50th (golden jubilee) anniversary, there’s usually no special meaning attached to a 71st birthday but for Umno, it is a very big deal.
This will be the party anniversary that is possibly the last before the 14th general election (GE14) which is widely expected to be called this year.
As the Umno vice-president carrying out the duties of the deputy president and Barisan Nasional deputy chairman, Dr Ahmad Zahid plays a key role in helping Barisan chairman Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak ensure that component parties stay on the same page in the run-up to the polls.
There have been some recent disagreements in the coalition, creating some uncertainty about its unity.
These include the move by PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to seek an amendment to the Syariah Court (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965, often referred to as RUU355.
“We (Barisan) have ironed out issues, for example, pertaining to RUU355, and Act 164 (or Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976).
“Our decisions are based on consensus and no decision can be made without it,” said Dr Ahmad Zahid, who now sips pu er Chinese tea, recommended to him during a trip to China.
He said Barisan components were now working much more closely with each other, and with a growing determination to regain ground lost in the previous two elections.
“I have seen the seriousness of Barisan leaders. Previously some took things for granted as they were so complacent with their previous achievements in GE11 when Pak Lah (Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) led Barisan to the biggest sweep of seats.”
Ever smiling and relaxed, Dr Ahmad Zahid was dressed in a shirt he often wears – red, white and blue with the logo of Keris 2314, an Umno programme reflecting the party’s goal of regaining two-thirds majority in Parliament for Barisan at GE14.
Some observers argue that Umno has become so focused on securing the Malay vote, it does not do enough to help win back non-Malay support for Barisan.
Just how important is the non-Malay vote in GE14?
“We (Umno) won 88 seats in the last election, and some people said that if we work with (Sarawak’s) Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB), we can get at least 112 seats and form a Muslim-Malay government. We don’t want that.
“Umno is not going to go it alone because we believe in a multi-cultural, multi-religious Malaysia, with a vision shared by all Malaysians,” said Dr Ahmad Zahid, adding that he too has been the target of similar criticism, of being communal in outlook.
“I’m portrayed as very Malay, very ‘kampung’. But I am also very open because the reality is we have to share power and opportunities with other ethnic groups.”
Umno’s warming ties with PAS have led some people to wonder whether the two parties will forge a political pact in some form for the general election.
Dr Ahmad Zahid reiterated what he has often explained, that what Umno and PAS have now was merely a common understanding on some issues which were unrelated to politics.
“On the Rohingya issue, for instance, we have been working together very well, or even on Daesh (Islamic State), we have been working closely to create awareness on its dangers among the ummah.”
This “understanding” between the two parties comes amid a widening rift between PAS and its former Opposition allies.
PAS has snubbed DAP and Amanah, and adopted a motion at its recent muktamar to cut ties with PKR while Hadi has described Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Pribumi) as rudderless.
“I think you have to respect the stand made by PAS to stand alone as other Opposition parties have been taking a free ride on PAS’ election machinery all this while,” said Dr Ahmad Zahid.
Still, some observers believe that GE14 will be the toughest test for Barisan which is expected to face off against what appears to be the biggest number of Opposition parties, including new ones.
Among these are Pribumi, PAS offshoot Parti Amanah Negara, and former Umno vice-president Datuk Shafie Mohd Apdal’s Parti Warisan Sabah.
Commenting on the increasingly crowded field, Dr Ahmad Zahid pointed out that of Umno’s 3.5 million members, less than 5,000 have left to join Pribumi so far.
“To me, the more (parties joining the fray), the merrier. What Umno and Barisan need to do is work harder and smarter,” he said, adding that Najib himself will be leading the election machinery for GE14.
“I’ve been with the PM for more than 30 years. I know how he works. I translate his orders together with other team members.
“This has given us a good advantage as major decisions are done collectively. It has given us some good results.”
As far as GE14 is concerned, the writing on the wall is clear: the Opposition will be facing a united Umno and Barisan that are well prepared for battle.