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Sunday, 13 August 2017 | MYT 12:00 AM

Will Muhyiddin defend his stronghold?

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s presence at the Pagoh Umno division AGM was to signal that the party intends to hold on to the seat but there are still doubts whether Umno can wrest it from Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

THE elephant in the room was Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (pic) but not once was his name mentioned at the Pagoh Umno AGM.

It was a typical mix of Malay politics and culture as the VIP guests spoke of the storm that had passed, of the difficult situation they faced and how Pagoh must choose the party over the individual.

There was no badmouthing or harsh words but there were lots of flowery Malay phrases used in recalling the crisis caused by Muhyiddin’s sacking from Umno and the Government.

The delegates did not need a dictionary to understand what was being said but it is hard to tell whether their hearts are still weighed down by sympathy for the fallen man.

The other big signal was the fact that the Deputy Prime Minister was officiating at the division of the former deputy prime minister.

Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had come to the lion’s den to send a strong message that the party intends to retain Pagoh.

His presence was also to signal to the party grassroots that the top leadership has prioritised Pagoh as a “must-win seat”.

Dr Ahmad Zahid’s grassroots touch was on full display and it is at this level of the party where he thrives because he is a natural at feeling the pulse and the mood of the party members.

He paid tribute to key individuals of the division hierarchy who were disciples of Muhyiddin but who, when the dust settled, chose to stay loyal to the party.

Pagoh is poised for centre-stage if Muhyiddin decides to defend the seat that he first contested in 1978. The Parti Pribumi president has kept mum about his plans since he joined the Opposition coalition.

There has been speculation that he is eyeing Muar where he was born and raised. He has family and friends in Muar where his late father, a religious teacher, had four wives and dozens of children.

Besides, Muar has a bigger Chinese voter base and Barisan Nasional’s Datuk Razali Ibrahim scraped by with only 1,646 votes in 2013.

Last weekend, Muhyiddin dropped what some thought was his first hint during a DAP dinner in Grisek, about 15km from Pagoh town. He declared that Johor was no longer an Umno fortress and said the fortress had collapsed and was in ruins. The crowd loved that and almost brought the roof down with their cheers and applause.

For some reason, those at the dinner took it to mean that he would contest in Pagoh where he defeated PAS by almost 12,000 votes in the last general election.

But it is a different political landscape from 2013. A three-cornered fight is likely between PAS, Umno and Parti Pribumi and no one is sure how the chips will fall.

The acting division chief Ismail Mohamed whom everyone knows as “Mail”, had said that the division is prepared for the prospect of taking on Muhyiddin. It will be tough taking on Muhyiddin but Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin, who was also present, seemed confident and he is eyeing a two-thirds majority for Johor in the general election.

Feelings in Pagoh were still raw when Khaled officiated at the division AGM last year. This time around, he can sense that their hearts are a bit cooler and minds a bit more rational.

Khaled is neither charismatic nor handsome, but he is smart, strategic and he has handled the impact of Muhyiddin’s sacking like an old pro.

Till today, he has not uttered a single bad word about Muhyiddin – at least not publicly.

He also did not attack any of the Opposition parties by name. Instead, he told his audience not to make Johor the “2nd Penang”. It was his way of saying that Johor should not fall to a coalition dominated by DAP who did not understand Malay culture or their religion.

Pagoh Wanita chief Senator Noriah Mahat is reportedly keen to be the Umno candidate but most people think Muhyiddin will, as the saying goes, eat her for breakfast. He is after all the former deputy prime minister and a top leader of Pakatan Harapan.

Noriah and the Pagoh Youth chief Mohd Zaid Rahman were very close to Muhyiddin and they were terribly upset when he was sacked but everything changed the moment Muhyiddin joined the Opposition.

Mohd Zaid may be slated to contest in Jorak, a state seat held by Datuk Dr Shaharudin Salleh, the secretary-general of Parti Pribumi.

The local gossip is that DAP has offered Bakri, which has 53% Chinese voters, to Muhyiddin. But the thing is that Muhyiddin has been going around, talking of a Malay tsunami.

As such, he cannot be running to a seat with more Chinese voters because that would punch a hole in his Malay tsunami story. It would be like DAP’s Lim Kit Siang quitting Johor to contest in another state – it would mean that they have given up on capturing Johor.

Pagoh is a peaceful and self-contained town and Muhyiddin’s footprint is everywhere. His party headquarters is near Pagoh’s educational hub – a 202ha piece of land where four colleges and universities share common facilities like library, stadium and field.

It is the pride of Pagoh and is a testimony of what he accomplished in his time.

It would be a huge moral blow if Umno loses Pagoh to Muhyiddin. But the blow would be even greater on Muhyiddin if he loses.