Even from jail, Najib will remain a kingmaker in Malaysia

NAJIB Razak may be behind bars, but the former Malaysian prime minister will loom large over the next battle for control in the nation’s parliament. 

Najib began serving a 12-year prison sentence Tuesday, after Malaysia’s top court upheld his 2020 conviction for his role in one of the world’s largest financial scandals. While the decision bars Najib, 69, from running again and mounting a political comeback in upcoming elections, the disgraced former premier retains widespread popularity and deep influence in the ruling United Malays National Organisation. 

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

Such political calculations suggest Najib, who led the Southeast Asian nation from 2009 to 2018, will likely continue to reign as a political kingmaker. The former premier has attempted to recast himself as a man of the people while battling five criminal cases related to theft from the state-owned 1MDB investment fund and helped UMNO win a string of local elections in the past year. 

“We’ve learned in Malaysian political life that no one is finished,” said Bridget Welsh, Honorary Research Associate with the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute Malaysia who has been writing about local politics for over two decades. “He will continue to remain prominent and he still has his supporters.”

A representative for UMNO didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Election Timing 

How that power struggle plays out ahead of the next elections, which must be held 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 one-time UMNO standard-bearer, Mahathir Mohamad, and opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, ousted Najib and forced UMNO from power for the first time in six decades. 

Although a wave of party defections helped Ismail and UNMO regain control over parliament in August 2021, his grip on power in the nation of 33 million people remains shaky without fresh elections. Ismail has cultivated a reputation as a defender of the independent judiciary by allowing proceedings against Najib to continue and must tread carefully to avoid a repeat of the 2018 loss.

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

“The question now is how the party treats the Najib episode and whether it continues to be disconnected from the aspirations of Malaysians,” said Ibrahim Suffian, program director and co-founder of Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which carried out surveys since 2004. “They need to show that they’ve learned from mistakes of the past and not let the party agenda be bogged down by controversial leaders.”

There’s still a possibility, but a very unlikely one, that Najib could go free and return to the campaign trail in the next election, since he could seek a review of the top court’s decision or petition for a pardon from King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad. Mahathir told Bloomberg News earlier this week that he saw a “50-50 chance” that Najib would eventually get a pardon. 

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

The SRC sentence, which included a 210 million-ringgit fine, was maintained by the Court of Appeal in December, with a judge referring to Najib’s actions as a “national embarrassment.” The Federal Court reaffirmed the earlier judgment Tuesday.  

Political Pressure

While Ismail has so far remained silent on the ruling, some party officials have offered support for Najib. 

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

Winning a national election won’t be be easy, a second senior UMNO official said. And forming a minority government would entail settling scores with opposition groups, the official said. 

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

Najib’s imprisonment “could hurt UMNO in a way with regards to the politics of garnering support from the ground,” said Johan Saravanamuttu, professor emeritus of Universiti Sains Malaysia. “On the other hand, it gives the current prime minister, Ismail Sabri, a stronger hand as he’s not hounded by the court court case of these individuals.” –BLOOMBERG