Even from prison, Najib will remain a Kingmaker in Malaysia

Even from prison, Najib will remain a Kingmaker in Malaysia

(Bloomberg) — Najib Razak may be behind bars, but Malaysia’s former prime minister will play a big role in the upcoming battle for control of the country’s parliament.

Bloomberg’s Most Read

Najib began serving a 12-year prison sentence on Tuesday after Malaysia’s top court upheld his 2020 conviction for his role in one of the world’s biggest financial scandals. While the ruling prevents Najib, 69, from running again and making a political comeback in the upcoming election, the disgraced former prime minister retains widespread popularity and deep influence in the United Malays National Organization.

The UMNO remains committed to holding elections as soon as possible to take advantage of a better-than-expected economy and fractured opposition, a senior official in the ruling party said on Wednesday. Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who has promised to hold a vote at the “right time”, will have to maintain his alliance with Najib’s supporters if he wants to retain his seat, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Such political calculations suggest that Najib, who led the Southeast Asian nation from 2009 to 2018, will likely continue to reign as a political king. The former prime minister tried to recast himself as a man of the people as he fought five criminal cases related to the theft of state investment fund 1MDB and helped UMNO win a series of local elections last year.

“We’ve learned in Malaysia’s political life that no one is finished,” said Bridget Welsh, an honorary research associate at the University of Nottingham’s Asia Research Institute, who has written about local politics for more than two decades. “He will continue to be prominent and he still has his supporters.”

A UMNO representative did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

election time

How this power struggle plays out before the next elections, which are due to take place by September 2023, will determine whether Malaysia can regain stability and defend its status as the region’s third-largest economy. Malaysia has seen three prime ministers since an unlikely alliance between Mahathir Mohamad, a former holder of the UMNO standard, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim toppled Najib and forced the UMNO from power for the first time in six decades.

While a wave of partisan defections helped Ismail and UNMO regain control of parliament in August 2021, their grip on power in the country of 33 million people remains shaky without new elections. Ismail has cultivated a reputation as an advocate for the independent judiciary by allowing the proceedings against Najib to continue and must act carefully to avoid a repeat of the 2018 defeat.

UMNO officials said they want elections to be held in November.

“The question now is how the party handles the Najib episode and whether it remains disconnected from the aspirations of Malaysians,” said Ibrahim Suffian, program director and co-founder of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which has been conducting research since 2004. learned from past mistakes and not let the party’s agenda get bogged down by controversial leaders.”

There is still a possibility, but a very unlikely one, that Najib could be released and return to campaigning in the upcoming elections, as he could seek a review of the higher court’s decision or a petition for pardon from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad. Mahathir told Bloomberg News earlier this week that he saw a “50% chance” that Najib would eventually receive a pardon.

Najib was convicted in July 2020 on charges of abuse of power, money laundering and breach of trust for the transfer of 42 million ringgit (US$9.4 million) from 1MDB’s SRC International unit to his personal bank account. The former prime minister has pleaded not guilty to all charges and claimed he was “the victim of a coup”.

The SRC sentence, which included a fine of 210 million ringgits, was upheld by the Court of Appeal in December, with a judge referring to Najib’s actions as a “national embarrassment”. The Federal Court reaffirmed the previous decision on Tuesday.

Najib returned to the Supreme Court on Thursday for a second 1MDB trial, where he is the only defendant. The former leader, who has three more court cases, arrived in a black SUV escorted by police and was dressed in a dark blue suit, state news agency Bernama reported.

Political Pressure

Although Ismail has so far remained silent about the decision and the court proceedings, some party officials have offered support to Najib.

“UMNO will stand together with Dato Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak to tackle all other cases against him and ensure he gets justice and does not become a victim of political pressure,” said UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. “We need to be calm and determined to identify all the biases in the system to ensure that justice is on the agenda.”

Winning a national election will not be easy, said a second senior UMNO official. And forming a minority government would mean settling scores with opposition groups, the official said.

Still, UMNO is confident it can prevent Najib from becoming the focus of the campaign, the official said. The party plans to contrast its longevity with opposition dysfunction, including the collapse of the Mahathir and Anwar coalition in 2020.

Najib’s arrest “could harm UMNO in a way as far as the policy of garnering support from the ground is concerned,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, professor emeritus at Universiti Sains Malaysia. “On the other hand, it gives the current prime minister, Ismail Sabri, a stronger hand as he is not prosecuted by the judicial process of these individuals.”

(Adds details about Najib’s court appearance on Thursday in the 14th paragraph)

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2022 Bloomberg LP

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.