(Bloomberg) — Malaysia’s rotating monarchy has played an outsized role in politics, helping to determine the prime minister. Now, the king may be former premier Najib Razak’s last chance to go free for his 1MDB-related crimes.
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Najib, 69, began serving time in prison from Tuesday after Malaysia’s top court upheld his 2020 conviction for corruption in relation to 1MDB, a troubled state fund from which billions have been embezzled. The next day, 300 of his most loyal supporters gathered at the palace to formally ask Sultan King Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah to grant Najib a pardon, claiming the judiciary had conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, Najib’s opponents have started an online campaign to persuade the king not to grant a pardon, arguing that the sentence is a deterrent against corruption for future leaders. They collected nearly 100,000 signatures online in over two days.
Najib has yet to file a petition, but if granted, it would end the 12-year prison sentence for the political heavyweight who has remained popular with voters and commands influence within the United Malays National Organization. For the king, granting such a pardon represents an enigma, as it risks angering a broad segment of the population who want court rulings to be respected.
“He needs to assess the current situation so as not to create discomfort among Malays as Najib has just been arrested,” said Awang Azman Awang Pawi, an associate professor at the Malaya University Academy of Malay Studies, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field. field.
The case for a real pardon, he said, is made more difficult as Najib faces four other trials related to 1MDB, which has gone down in history as one of the world’s biggest financial scandals.
It will not be the first time that the king of Malaysia, selected from nine royal families every five years, has received a petition to pardon a politician. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was initially rejected by the king when he sought a royal pardon months after he was found guilty and imprisoned under a colonial-era sodomy law in 2015.
Anwar obtained his pardon three years later when then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly supported his petition after his parties toppled the UMNO in a shocking election victory in 2018. In Najib’s case, there is still no indication that the prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob will support a petition for a royal pardon.
“It depends on what kind of deal Najib can get with Ismail Sabri and whether the prime minister will support him,” said James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania who looks at governance issues in Southeast Asia. “The calculation is whether this will impact Malaysian voters in rural areas and whether you will impact the vote for UMNO.”
Prior to his arrest, Najib had rehabilitated his image as a man of the people and led UMNO to a series of poll victories in Malay-dominated semi-urban and rural states. He and other UMNO leaders have pressed Ismail to bring forward elections due to be held by September 2023 to capitalize on the political momentum, but the prime minister has resisted, saying he wants to focus first on fighting inflation.
Traditionally, the king is seen as the defender of the Muslim faith and is widely revered by Malays, who make up over 60% of the population of 33 million. He has increasingly flexed his political strength since 2020, when Mahathir abruptly resigned as prime minister, going on to name Muhyiddin Yassin as the next leader without a parliamentary vote.
Less than a year later, growing anger over the way the government handled the pandemic and the economy forced Muhyiddin and his cabinet to resign and the king entered the political fray again, this time naming Ismail. His decision saw UMNO take back the reins of power after a two-year absence.
Many UMNO leaders want the king to forgive Najib, but it will take some time to see the process. Najib has to serve some prison time before getting his pardon, although he has to petition within 14 days of the appeal decision date or else he loses his seat in parliament.
If he does not get a pardon, he will be disqualified from elections for five years after being released from prison. The king deliberates on petitions in consultation with the pardon council.
Mahathir told Bloomberg News earlier this week that he saw a “50% chance” that Najib would eventually receive a pardon. It is likely that Najib will ask for a full pardon that will erase any condemnation and disqualification that comes with it.
“It’s an executive decision and it’s entirely in the monarch’s hands,” said Salim Bashir Bhaskaran, a criminal lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar Association. “He has the sole prerogative to take into account all the circumstances, the gravity of the case and the character of the convict before deciding to grant a pardon or a reprieve.”
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