Sources within Umno have not ruled out strong speculation since last month about a so-called "exit plan" for Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, a move that could pave the way for his political retirement having survived more than a year of pressure from party comrades to step down as president.
The sources told MalaysiaNow that Zahid's recent health scare which necessitated surgery, details of which have not been disclosed to the public, had given him a window of opportunity to give up his party and government posts.
But with Zahid gone, questions about the survival of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim – the man whose lifelong political ambition was fulfilled thanks to the Umno president – will inevitably be raised.
"The open secret is that Zahid forced his hand as the Barisan Nasional (BN) chairman to get MPs to back Anwar.
"Now that he is somewhat a free man, those close to him have been advising him to devise an exit plan, as continuing to sit at the top is not going to look good both for him and the party," said a former close aide to a top Umno leader.
Speculation of Zahid's exit had swirled even before news of his surgery on Nov 16.
The deputy prime minister had been largely out of the limelight since his party's disastrous performance in the six state elections in August, where Umno under his leadership was trounced for the second time by Perikatan Nasional (PN) in its quest for critical Malay support.
Umno won only 19 of the 108 state seats it contested, its second disastrous outing since the general election last year which saw the party losing its traditional strongholds to PN.
Both defeats were followed by vocal calls for Zahid to give up his post. While he had acknowledged the protests, he gave no indication that he would step down.
"I am aware of such calls. What I can pledge is that I, with the help of the party’s leadership, will do more to regain the people’s confidence," he had said after the August elections.
Many Umno leaders at both the central and state levels, including at least two in the federal Cabinet, told MalaysiaNow that while pressure had been maintained on Zahid, his current medical condition and absence from official duty had only renewed the calls for him to vacate the top position.
"More than three months have passed (since the state elections), and there has not been any indication that Umno can regain our ground at the next general election.
"In fact, the bad economic vibes released by the Madani government make it harder for us to make a comeback," an Umno elected representative from a southern state told MalaysiaNow on condition of anonymity, referring to the coalition government of Pakatan Harapan and BN.
He expressed confidence that Zahid would be "on the way out in the very near future", adding that this was a "foregone conclusion".
"It would be suicidal for him to stay on, especially now that he is, at the moment at least, off the hook," he added, referring to the controversial decision to stop Zahid's criminal trial by invoking the powers of the attorney-general to grant a DNAA.
But any such move by Zahid would mean a blow to Anwar, said a PKR leader and former MP.
"After one year of holding on to the top office minus Malay support, losing the man who ensured his prime ministerial dream was fulfilled would be the beginning of another political nightmare for Anwar," she added.
Zahid was instrumental in ensuring Anwar's appointment as prime minister, forcing BN MPs to back the PH chairman following the hung parliament in the aftermath of the general election last year.
Among others, letters of undertaking signed by MPs were used as a threat that they would lose their seats if they went against party instructions.
"With Zahid gone, there are not many trustworthy Anwarists around – indeed, there are none," said the same former MP who had served a constituency in the Klang Valley.
There is also talk that Anwar might not be keen to fill the vacancy left by Zahid with Mohamad Hasan, as the Umno deputy president enjoys no clout outside of Negeri Sembilan where he once thrived as menteri besar.
"The fact is, Tok Mat has been eyeing the number two post in a bid to strengthen himself in Umno, but I don't think Anwar is going to risk putting someone with no influence in Umno," said an Umno source.
Mohamad meanwhile denied talk of Zahid being on his way out.
"These are merely rumours," he told MalaysiaNow in a brief reply.
Among party insiders, it is known that Mohamad and Zahid do not see eye-to-eye.
"But with Zahid around, Tok Mat seems to be taking the brunt of criticism as he had to continue defending Umno's cooperation with PH, especially with DAP," said the source.
Umno's cooperation with DAP leaders in the federal coalition government is widely seen as the bane of its efforts to regain its Malay base.
Before the elections, Mohamad was among the most vocal in rejecting any form of cooperation with not only DAP, but also any other party, telling members that Umno should be in the driving seat.
But earlier this year, Mohamad told delegates at the Umno general assembly that DAP was more sincere than PN.
"At the next Umno assembly, he cannot go with that argument any more," said the Umno source.
While details of Zahid's "exit plan" have been scarce, questions have been raised on whether the Umno leader will be "rewarded", whether through a ceremonial position in a state or chairmanship of a major government-linked company.
However, many party leaders believe he has no need for either in order to enjoy a quiet retirement.
"Whatever the plan is, now may be the best time for Zahid to exit. He has, after all, done his job for Anwar and now it's time to look after himself.
"This recent health scare may come as a suitable excuse," said the Umno MP.