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Ex-Malaysia PM Najib Razak’s deputy takes over beleaguered Umno party

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is popular among grass roots members but his position as part of the old guard tainted by the 1MDB scandal may do little to rebuild trust with voters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 9:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2018, 9:57pm

Ousted Malaysian leader Najib Razak’s party has chosen his former deputy as its new leader, party officials said Sunday, after a shocking May election loss broke its decades-old political reign.

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, 65, was elected president of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) after defeating two former ministers.

Official results saw Ahmad Zahid receive 78 nominations from the party’s 191 divisions while Khairy Jamaluddin won 53 and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was handed 28 nominations.

“The people have high hopes that Umno will continue to fight for the interests of religion, race and the country,” Ahmad Zahid said in a statement after he was declared the new party leader.

Ex-premier Najib’s long-ruling coalition, long dogged by corruption allegations, lost the May 9 elections to a reformist alliance headed by Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib quit as Umno president days later, and now faces an anti-graft probe over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

Both Najib and the fund have denied any wrongdoing.

On Friday, investigators said they had frozen bank accounts including those of Umno in relation to funds embezzled from 1MDB.

Ahmad Zahid responded by saying he would seek to prove that the party’s money wasn’t connected to any illegal fund activities, while Najib warned that political parties shouldn’t be victimised as part of the investigation.

“The unreasonable action of freezing the bank accounts will disrupt the parties’ activities and the rebuilding of the opposition party,” Najib said in a Facebook post on Saturday.

The coveted presidency of Umno once meant a clear path to becoming prime minister.

But Umno, which led the former ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, saw key allies desert after the polls with a number cosying up to Mahathir’s Pact of Hope alliance.

However, it remains the multi-ethnic country’s single largest political party, boasting some three million members and 52 MPs.

Penang Institute political scientist Wong Chin Huat said he did not believe that Ahmad Zahid’s win would improve Umno political chances.

“(Ahmad’s) victory signals a reluctant, opportunistic and combative opposition which will not change itself,” he said.

“(It) only hopes to change everything else including voters’ perception.”

Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Bloomberg