Malaysia's United Malays National Organizations (UMNO), the dominant party in the ruling coalition, kicked off the crucial party elections on Saturday as analysts said the outcome may shape the future policies of Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The elections of UMNO's wing organizations, including the youth and women's groups on Saturday, will be followed by elections of its powerful supreme council and local divisions on Oct. 19, when more than 140,000 party delegates will cast ballots to pick their leaders.
Najib retained his post as party president together with his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin uncontested, despite earlier speculations that he might be ousted after the poor showing by the ruling coalition in the May general election.
However, the party elections may still be seem as a test of Najib's leadership and his reform agenda since he took over as UMNO president and prime minister in 2009.
Tense races are expected for the supreme council elections, especially for the posts of vice president, where the three incumbents face serious challenges by Mukhriz Mahathir, a chief minister in the northern Kedah state and son of the Malaysia's longest serving prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
At the age of 88, Mahathir still holds considerable sway within UMNO and played a key role in ousting Najib's predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi after the previous general election in 2008.
Oh Ei Sun, a political analyst and former political secretary to Najib, predicted a close contest between Mukhirz and incumbent vice president and defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also the son of a former prime minister and Najib's cousin.
"If Mukhriz instead of Hishammuddin becomes vice president, you will see Mahathir becoming even more vocal, thus further constraining Najib's hand," said Oh.
"If both win, which is unlikely, then the current stalemate and bickering will go on for a while. If Hishammuddin instead of Mukhriz wins, then Najib will be able to better focus on his reform agenda for next 3 years."
Despite his uncontested victory in party polls, Najib is facing increasing pressure from party conservatives, who strongly uphold the supremacy of the ethnic-Malay majority in the country. Najib recently announced new initiatives to boost the economic status of the Malays and other indigenous groups that make up more than 60 percent of the total population.
Oh said the outcome of the party elections may have great impact on Najib policies in his second term as prime minister.
"In a sense..the party election is much much more important than the general election. If Najib can squeeze in many if his people among the vice presidents and supreme council, then his reform agenda can proceed much more smoothly."