By JOCELINE TAN
The Umno Youth contest has become the race to watch as the underdog candidate has clinched the coveted nomination count to contest while the once mighty are struggling to catch up.
DATUK Mukhriz Mahathir was probably as surprised as many others in Umno to have zoomed ahead of the assumed strongman candidate Khairy Jamaluddin.
By the end of the first weekend round of Umno Youth divisions meetings on Sunday, he had 40 nominations, more than the minimum 38 he needed to contest the Umno Youth leadership.
Getting the requisite nominations is a key psychological milestone and that he got there before Khairy and Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo has been pretty stunning.
Just a week or so ago, he was placed in second or even third place after Khairy and Dr Khir. But it has been a long and dramatic week in politics for Umno and as the new Subang Umno Youth head Harrison Hassan pointed out it, “everything has changed.”
It is clear even at this early stage that the winds of change are blowing through the Youth wing.
Otherwise, how does one explain the way the underdog is now leading the nomination count while the once mighty are struggling to catch up.
Khairy, who is the incumbent deputy Youth chief, has secured 20 nominations so far, Dr Khir 12 and the fourth aspirant Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin only one.
Mukhriz’s leading trend is likely to continue this weekend and Khairy should be able to secure the requisite nominations by then.
But the picture is a bit gloomier for Dr Khir although his aides insist he will get there.
He thought he had steady support from the Youth wing in Selangor but he has had to struggle against Mukhriz and Khairy in the state where he had been a two-term Mentri Besar.
The cool reception to Khir in Selangor is also sign of how Umno feels about his role in the loss of this premier state in the general election.
He reckoned he had put the defeat behind him by taking responsibility and resigning as the Selangor Umno chief but it looks like all has not been forgiven.
But the question everyone is asking now is what has gone wrong with the Khairy’s political juggernaut?
Is it simply because his father-in-law is on his last leg as Prime Minister or is it something more complex?
He has campaigned extensively the last few months, he has tremendous access in his capacity as the incumbent deputy Youth leader and he has the funds.
He even has a “war team” comprising of some seasoned faces including a former journalist and a couple of bright, young individuals.
“The change is coming from the bottom. The grassroots are reasserting their voice. They are telling us who they want rather than we telling them who to choose. It’s been the trend after what happened in the general election,” said Harrison.
A total of 72 of the 191 Umno Youth divisions have met so far and the rest will hold their meetings this weekend.
Khairy, who has a stronger standing in the rural divisions, has had a tough time in the urban division meetings where members are more informed and critical.
In Setiawangsa, there were jeers from the floor when Khairy’s name was proposed and few were surprised when Mukhriz won with 53 votes against 29 for Dr Khir and 7 for Khairy.
“The wind for Mukhriz is very powerful this time,” said Zulflida Tahmali, an Umno Youth politician from Setiawangsa.
Khairy had an even tougher time in Johor although he secured three nominations there.
In Tenggara, delegates shouted tak mahu! when his name was proposed.
In Batu Pahat, he got only three votes compared to 95 for Khir and 186 for Mukhriz.
That is the kind of scenario he is facing in some places.
Johor has been outspoken about the party leadership and Khairy’s alleged influence in the present administration.
It is possible he is now feeling the full impact of the party’s discontent.
The last time the Umno Youth leadership was contested was in 1996 and the fight is turning out to be a top ticket match.
Some view it as a proxy fight between Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Others claim it is a mini referendum on the Abdullah administration.
Such metaphorical analogies do not cut much ice with the average Umno Youth member.
But they do realise that Umno is in dire straits and that the Youth wing has lost support among young Malays.
They are looking for a sincere and capable leader who will lead them out of the mess.
But the battle for nominations is just the first stage or a race up the hill. After that comes the race up the mountain and that is the tough one.