Each year on the last Thursday before the end of the Ramadan fasting month, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi leads evening vigil prayers that stretch till dawn the next day.

Following the vigil this year – as he huddled with close advisers and friends at the pre-fast (pre-dawn) meal referred to by Muslims as Sahur – the embattled leader said he had resolved, after hours of prayer, to declare at a meeting of top leaders of the ruling Umno that morning that he intended to defend his party presidency and stick to his 2010 retirement plan.

But Datuk Seri Abdullah’s resolve to stay in office quickly dissolved after a private session with his deputy Najib Razak just before the Umno Supreme Council session.

During their discussion, the Premier was forced to reconsider his decision to defend the party presidency and bring forward his handover of power to March next year.

‘How Najib and the rest got him to change his mind is a mystery to all of us,’ said a close associate of Mr Abdullah, who added that the Premier felt betrayed by those he had trusted in Umno, including Datuk Seri Najib, and their move to force him to speed up his retirement plans.

Over the past week, Mr Abdullah had struggled with his closest advisers to work out a possible fightback that would have allowed him a more graceful exit.

But those plans were scrapped over the weekend, say close associates, and the Premier is expected to announce in the coming days his decision not to defend his presidency of Umno.

That move will pave the way for Mr Najib’s takeover of the party and the government in March next year, when the party will hold its own congress, which was originally slated for December.

However, the move is unlikely to bring peace to Umno, which dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government and is still reeling from the electoral setbacks suffered during the March general election.

Mr Najib, who enjoys widespread support within Umno, is not expected to face a challenge.

But there is already a spirited race for the party’s deputy presidency among several of Umno’s powerful warlords. Analysts say that a bruising campaign would only deflect the government’s attention from pressing economic issues.

International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, currently the most senior of the party’s three vice-presidents, is expected to declare his bid for Umno’s No. 2 job. He is expected to face a strong challenge from Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department and formerly political secretary to Mr Najib.

Other aspirants include Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam and former Selangor chief minister Muhammad Muhammad Taib.

Umno officials also expect bitter battles for the youth movements and positions on the powerful Supreme Council.

Close aides of Mr Abdullah say that by taking himself out of the potentially divisive party election, the Premier hopes to concentrate on implementing reforms in the country’s battered judiciary and on giving more teeth to Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Agency so that it can fight the worsening graft in government.

But analysts wonder whether Umno will give Mr Abdullah the opportunity to carry out these reforms, which would help repair his now-tattered legacy.

Umno divisions will begin month-long meetings this Thursday to nominate candidates for the party’s upcoming election, and Mr Najib is widely expected to sweep the majority of nominations for the presidency.

That in turn could prompt the party’s warlords to force Mr Abdullah to relinquish the premiership sooner, on grounds that it would allow Mr Najib to consolidate his position in government and to concentrate on tackling economic issues and rebuilding the BN government.

However, former premier Mahathir Mohamad yesterday said he did not believe Mr Abdullah would leave.

‘He likes to change his position. As long as he does not make the announcement, I will not believe it,’ he was quoted as saying by the Malaysian Insider website. — The Straits Times