Malaysia’s Anwar expects boost from Najib ruling as vote looms

MALAYSIAN opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim expects the imprisonment of former Prime Minister Najib Razak to give his Pakatan Harapan coalition a boost in what he said will likely be his final election.

The long-serving opposition leader, 75, said he plans to campaign on the issue in a vote that could be held as soon as this year, putting forth to Malaysians that corruption among the country’s most powerful figures will no longer be tolerated. 

Anwar also said during an interview Friday that Najib’s political career has probably ended for the foreseeable future, and a royal pardon is unlikely soon as he still faces trials on other charges. Najib 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 were siphoned. 

“This has probably broken the taboo that corrupt leaders would remain untouched,” said Anwar, who spent years in prison himself for charges he said were trumped up. “This is a positive development for the opposition to showcase that if you want a clean government, if you want good governance, then this is an opportunity.”

Even with Najib’s imprisonment, 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 a fractured opposition, a senior ruling party official said this week.

The government said on Friday it will bring forward the unveiling of its annual budget, giving Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob more leeway to call for polls this year should he decide to do so, though Anwar downplayed the notion.

“I’m not sure after this conviction” and Najib’s subsequent jailing, he said, adding he believes most of the Ismail’s Cabinet would rather wait. “I don’t think it is going to be that easy to have it early, which means sometime in the first quarter of next year.”

Anwar has had a storied political career in which he seemed poised to become prime minister on more than one occasion. He was seen as former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s successor in the 1990s before he was fired in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, after which he spent six years in prison on convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. He then joined hands with Mahathir to win the 2018 election, only to see his old rival fail to honor a promise to step aside before the government unraveled.

This time around, he said he was unlikely to seek any such alliance ahead of the polls, though he did not rule out broadening his coalition if it wins and is invited to form a government.

With UMNO back in power, Anwar has faced repeated challenges to his leadership after a poor showing for the People’s Justice Party in recent local polls. Still, he was optimistic about their chances in a general election, which must be held by September 2023.

Earlier this year, he secured his hold over the party after winning an unopposed bid for presidency. While that retains his chance to become prime minister, he acknowledged that should he fail to do so, this will be his final election.

“There is that likelihood because of my age and my confidence that there are five or six leaders emerging,” he said. “Give a chance to Anwar to prove, and then surrender power to the younger team to continue the mission. I think that’s how I see it.”

In the meantime, it is unclear if Najib will apply for a royal pardon, and get one. Malaysia’s king was petitioned to pardon Anwar after he was jailed in 2015, but it was turned down. The politician eventually got one three years later when Mahathir publicly supported his petition after their parties ousted UMNO in a shock election win in 2018.

While Anwar didn’t discount the possibility that Najib would eventually receive a pardon, he said it was not likely to be anytime soon and could take “possibly years.” He recalled how during his time in prison he was made to sleep on the floor, though he believes Najib will receive better treatment. But doing time won’t be easy for someone used to “seven-star treatment,” he said.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Anwar. “Even if you’re given relatively good treatment, it is certainly going to be bad because there’s going to be no croissants in the morning.” –BLOOMBERG