Kuala Lumpur : Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi Thursday stepped down as leader of the country’s ruling party, clearing the way for his deputy, Najib Razak, to become president of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
The uncontested election makes Najib, who is also deputy prime minister and Malaysia’s finance minister, almost certainly the country’s next premier.
Historically, all presidents of UMNO, the largest and most powerful party in the National Front government coalition, are elected as prime ministers.
While Abdullah has not set a date for handing the premiership over to Najib, local sources said it could take place as early as next week.
Earlier, in a rousing speech marking his resignation, Abdullah called on UMNO to work at rebuilding its badly bruised image or risk being made obsolete.
Abdullah was emotional and struggled to hold back tears throughout his opening speech of the UMNO general assembly in Kuala Lumpur.
“I’ve been privileged to see developments and growth within UMNO over the years and to be involved in the party’s struggles,” Abdullah said.
However, Abdullah said the party’s popularity today was at an all-time low and urged delegates to unite in making the party relevant to the masses.
Abdullah said UMNO was facing “a test of credibility that is extremely heavy”.
He said the party had been resting on its laurels for too long and failed to address the real needs of the people.
UMNO and the National Front have been in power for all of the country’s 52-year history.
“We have been overcome by greed, by in-fighting,” Abdullah warned. “We have failed to manage our own successes.”
After Abdullah reiterated Thursday that he would not seek re-election, Najib was made party chief in an uncontested election.
Abdullah’s resignation came after mounting criticism against his leadership following embarrassing losses for the party and the National Front government in last year’s general elections.
The three-party opposition alliance managed to wrest away control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states and for the first time in history denied the government a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Abdullah, who initially refused to step down, eventually relented after embarrassing public criticism of his performance.
On Thursday, Abdullah defended his service to the party since taking over from former premier Mahathir Mohamad in November 2003.
“I joined the party because I was confident in the party’s struggles,” he said.
“I have never insulted UMNO, I have never shamed UMNO, and I will never leave it,” he said before choking up before the delegates.
“I’ve been through political hardships, but a test of our loyalty is only when we face struggles,” he said.
Almost 2,500 delegates travelled from all over the country to gather for the annual congress.