WHEN Prime Ministers trade barbs, even if one is no longer in office, the bruises are there for all to see. The on-going argument between Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad goes to another level after last Sunday's war of words.
Both of them had separate speaking engagements - Pak Lah at PWTC and Dr Mahathir at a hotel in Ampang. Pak Lah's do was organised by the Information Bureau of Umno and Dr Mahathir's was by an Umno branch.
The mainstream newspapers and tv networks showed the PM taking Dr Mahathir to task for various faults during his 22 years in office. Dr Mahathir, on the other side of town, continued his call for Pak Lah to step down and take responsibility for his action.
Dr Mahathir has been at Pak Lah since the latter lost five states and the two-third majority in the Dewan Rakyat following the March 8 general election. Dr Mahathir has expressed unhappiness over the erosion in credibility and control of Umno and the Barisan National in national politics, just four years after the resounding victory in 2004.
Pak Lah, hitting back at Dr Mahathir, insisted that now is not the time to speak about quitting from his job. Now is the time to close ranks and make every effort to consolidate the party and restore members' confidence. Pak Lah attributed the loss to 'saboteurs' who betrayed the party by various means.
In the midst of all this, a small town Umno Branch Chief called me and lamented that his members are clueless as to what is happening to the party whom he had supported since childhood. He said there are many others like him at the grassroot level who's confused, angry and disappointed after the poll.
His contention is simple. With all the allegations and counter allegation, someone has to be right. He is of the opinion that Umno's future will not be any brighter if party leaders ignore the plea from the grassroot that wrong strategies were the main reason for what he described as the most humiliating defeat in the party history.
Coming from a state now under the rule of Pakatan Rakyat, the branch chief has not been able to walk tall in his town after the election. His members are not regrouping, prefering instead to go their separate ways to lick their wounds.
He refused to pin the losses on Pak Lah alone, echoing the party president's statement that he can't be made to be solely responsible. The past is the past, he said, arguing that some serious and drastic solutions are needed to ensure Umno's continued relevance. Let's have some fresh ideas, and fresh leaders too.
He follows closely developments within the party, more from direct discussions with fellow grassroot leaders rather than from the mainstream newspapers. Some reports in some newspapers linked to Umno and the BN contributed to the losses, he said, asking whether would the mass media be also guilty of sabotage.
I wouldn't give too much attention to a branch chief but he was so passionate in his articulation. He said the people has spoken. He now wants his voice as an Umno member he heard, to be allowed to make a choice as to who he feels should lead the party and restore its credibility, respect and confidence.
He is sure that Pak Lah have his own band of supporters and followers, as do Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Abdul Razak and all the top names in the party. Rather than skirting round the bush, my friend said point blank:
"Let the members decide once and for all who should lead the party. Let there be free contests so that everyone has a say in whom they want. All this talk about quotas and call for stepping down and finger pointing are just academic. Pak Lak have his own merits, as do Ku Li and whoever else who want to join the fray.
"Let us show our BN component members and the Pakatan Rakyat that Umno is serious in wanting to reinvent itself via its own reforms."