DEPUTY Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to take over the post of Umno president uncontested, but there could yet be a fight for the No. 2 post for the first time in 21 years.

Positions on the Umno chessboard became clearer yesterday after leading members made known the posts they were interested in.

This was a day after Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi said he would not defend his president’s post in the Umno elections in March.

The announcements came as the party’s 191 divisions began their closely watched annual meetings. The meetings will last until Nov 9.

Every three years, when Umno holds its internal elections for the top positions, the divisions are the kingmakers as the candidates must first secure a sufficient number of nominations from them. The leaders who are keen to be picked must quickly announce their intentions over the next few days. They did not do so earlier as they wanted to know if Mr Abdullah would be defending his post.

Datuk Seri Najib was the first to announce his plan yesterday by saying he wants to become the next party president. If he wins, he will be anointed Malaysia’s sixth prime minister.

He said on a visit to Terengganu yesterday: ‘I, humbly and sincerely, wish to offer myself as a candidate for the Umno presidency.’

Although Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh is also expected to contest the No. 1 post, he is unlikely to secure the minimum 30 per cent of nominations from the 191 divisions, or 58 nominations, party insiders say.

There had been speculation that International Trade and Industry Minister Muhyiddin Yassin might go for broke and contest the president’s post.

But he indicated yesterday that he was not interested, by asking members to ‘100 per cent’ support Mr Najib’s aim to be the new party president.

His gesture will go down well in Umno, as members are tired of the months-long infighting to oust Mr Abdullah while fending off challenges from opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim.

Tan Sri Muhyiddin will announce the post he is aiming for today. It is widely expected to be the deputy president’s post – which will make him the new deputy prime minister if he wins.

Contestants for the No. 2 post need to secure at least 20 per cent of the divisions to support them, or 38 nominations.

Mr Muhyiddin is expected to face several challengers. One of them, the Rural Development Minister and a staunch Abdullah loyalist, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, declared his intention yesterday.

Mr Muhyiddin’s other serious rivals for the post are likely to be Malacca Chief Minister Ali Rustam and former federal territories minister Isa Samad.

Mr Ali has openly indicated his interest in the vacant post. Mr Isa has yet to announce whether he will go for it.

But Mr Muhyiddin is expected to prevail as Umno chiefs are working behind the scenes to ensure that he wins uncontested.

Even if there is a contest, he remains the odds-on favourite.

Party chiefs are wary of a fight for the top two posts because Umno was badly split the last time it happened 21 years ago, in 1987.

Meanwhile, Mr Abdullah said yesterday that he does not care how people remember him after he quits, insisting his goal now is to speed up the economic and administrative reforms he started four years ago.

He also indicated that he is not about to bow out of politics and will defend his post as the division chief of Kepala Batas in Penang.

His son-in-law, Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, won a small victory yesterday by being nominated for the post of Umno Youth chief in a meeting of a Kelantan division.

His rival, Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, was nominated for the same post in a meeting of a Sabah division.

Two divisions will meet today to make their nominations for the top posts. A total of 26 of the 191 divisions will have held their meetings by Sunday. ST