Najib verdict complicates Malaysia’s game of thrones

Author: Francis E Hutchinson, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute

On 28 July, Malaysia’s former prime minister Najib Razak made history when he became the country’s highest-ranking official to be convicted in court. Najib was found guilty of seven criminal charges relating to his role in the 1MDB investment fund corruption scandal. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined US$50 million. Najib remains on bail pending appeal, but more charges are on the table regarding misappropriation of funds.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak leaves a courtroom for a break at Kuala Lumpur High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1 June 2020 (Photo: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng).

The verdict is good news for Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. His Perikatan Nasional coalition holds the slightest of majorities in parliament after toppling Mahathir Mohamad’s Pakatan Harapan government in March 2020. While Perikatan Nasional appeals squarely to Malay voters in the Malayan Peninsula’s rural heartland, Muhyiddin is not insensitive to the need to appeal to urbanites.

Enjoying a bump in popularity due to his sober handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, Muhyiddin can now also plausibly claim to urban voters that he is upholding the rule of law. This, along with primary opposition party Pakatan Harapan’s serious internal divisions — including having no agreed candidate for prime minister — has led many to argue that Muhyiddin would be well-served by calling for snap elections to gain legitimacy and a larger majority.

But things are not so clear-cut. Najib’s guilty verdict has very different implications for the three largest component parties of Perikatan Nasional, namely: Muhyiddin’s own party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu), UMNO and the Islamic party PAS. These parties compete for the same Malay-majority seats, largely in rural areas.

PAS and the current UMNO leadership are pushing hard for early elections, flush with confidence that their Malay and Islamic credentials, as well as Malaysia’s electoral maths, will help them clinch a victory. Muhyiddin has no guarantee that these parties will nominate him as their prime ministerial candidate, or that they will not decide to compete against his party at the last minute. UMNO faces pressure from its grassroots to push hard in seat negotiations to regain its former dominant position.

Muhyiddin’s popularity notwithstanding, his Bersatu party is less certain to do well in snap polls. Of its 31 MPs, roughly a third are defectors from Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and are factionally aligned with former PKR minister Azmin Ali. Having been elected in urban areas on PKR’s reform agenda in 2018, these MPs are unlikely to be re-elected if they stand in the same constituencies.

Many of the other Bersatu MPs ran in UMNO territory and won relatively small majorities. Bersatu’s grassroots support network is weak — and should they compete with UMNO directly, they may well lose. Even if they team up with UMNO, there is no guarantee that that party’s machinery will support them with any enthusiasm.

Even if Perikatan Nasional competes as one entity in the next election and wins, it is quite likely that Muhyiddin’s position within the coalition will be weakened. Should UMNO win handsomely, it is likely that he would be asked to yield the prime ministership to an UMNO leader. At this juncture, Muhyiddin has more to gain from postponing polls, shoring up his position, and letting UMNO weaken through its own internal dynamics.

UMNO’s internal factions view Najib’s guilty verdict differently from one another. As a former UMNO president Najib is influential, but his guilty verdict is a severe reversal: he has posted bail and can retain his seat as an MP while his appeal is pending, but is barred from running for office in the event elections are called. Snap elections would put him in the political wilderness with none of the prominence his current status gives him.

In contrast, current UMNO President Zahid Hamidi will be feeling uneasy, as his own corruption trial is well advanced. Should he be found guilty, he would be legally obligated to relinquish his presidency. Zahid’s faction would prefer to go for snap elections before the end of the trial, while he still leads the party. Flush with a stronger mandate, UMNO under his leadership would be in a stronger position and, potentially, able to exert pressure on the judiciary.

There are other contenders for UMNO leadership — including current ministers Khairy Jamaluddin and Hishamuddin Hussein — and they may prefer to bide their time. Many younger party members sought to push for internal party reform following their 2018 electoral defeat, but UMNO’s rigid organisation and hierarchy meant these efforts were stillborn. For many, this juncture is a unique opportunity for a generational reset.

Another option would be for Muhyiddin and his Bersatu faction to join UMNO. This has the virtue of avoiding many of the potential traps inherent in the current Perikatan Nasional structure. That said, this move may not be welcome by UMNO grassroots members who regard Bersatu members — many of whom were previously with UMNO — as turncoats.

The unexpected winner from this situation is PAS. While the party has declared its support for its alliance with UMNO, it stands to benefit from any war of attrition between UMNO and Bersatu. Even more than Bersatu, the Islamist party competes directly with UMNO for seats in Peninsular Malaysia’s north and east. Its frenemy’s image problems can only be to its benefit.

Francis E Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.