Najib’s prison politics rock Malaysia

Author: Ömer Faruk Yildiz, Anadolu Agency

After four years of tedious court proceedings, the Malaysian Federal Supreme Court finally upheld the High Court’s decision to sentence former Prime Minister Najib Razak to 12 years in prison for his involvement in the corruption of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the Strategic Resource Company.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives at the Federal Court in Putrajaya, Malaysia on August 23, 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Hasnoor Hussain)

During the trial, Najib tried everything to turn the verdict in his favor. From building a heroic public image through social media campaigns to embracing his supporters through state visits, he did his best to hide the allegations against him. With religion playing a crucial role in Malaysian politics, Najib emphasized his devotion to Islam by reciting prayers before court hearings and making strategic appearances in mosques to garner more Malay Muslim support.

Although he managed to consolidate uncompromising supporters in his party, the United Malay National Organization (UMNO), none of them helped to overturn the court case. Hopes of his comrades in the old guard that the post of prime minister of UMNO member Ismail Sabri Yaakob Najib would benefit Najib’s trial eventually faded. The judicial system and the UMNO-led government did not bow to pressure from Najib’s policies.

The court’s decision to convict Najib and prosecute 1MDB appears to be more than just a political move. Najib’s detention caused a stir in the UMNO party and in Malaysian politics. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s repeated calls for early elections and a royal pardon for Najib have increased pressure on current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and highlighted the gulf between the old and new guard of the UMNO party.

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Ismail Sabri was expected to cave in to calls to bail Najib out of prison to avoid his release, but the prime minister seems to be holding the line. He called the pressure from Zahid a “disagreement” and has not commented on early elections or a royal pardon. His confidence has not come from his popularity with the UMNO base or the public, but rather from his knowledge that the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition holds him in higher esteem than Zahid.

After defeating former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin through political maneuvers, Zahid may feel that he can similarly intimidate Muhyiddin’s successor. Zahid could use his power within UMNO to eliminate Ismail Sabri. But this would upset the balance of power within Perikatan Nasional and reduce UMNO’s chances of winning the next parliamentary elections.

Zahid cannot rightly eliminate someone he once wanted to see as a leader. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) – the other components of the Perikatan Nasional coalition – have good relations with Ismail Sabri. The PAS and PPBM will side with Ismail Sabri in the event of political maneuvering by Zahid. The opposition may back Ismail Sabri until the next election to prevent the UMNO old guard from returning to power.

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Calling for snap elections and nominating an old-guard loyalist for prime minister will do Zahid no favours. The coalition will not agree to such demands, and voters will reject any candidate who seeks to disrupt the outcome of the 1MDB process. Barisan Nasional’s unexpected defeat in the 2018 general election was proof of that. Any move against Ismail Sabri would result in the dissolution of Perikatan Nasional or an electoral defeat. But Ismail Sabri’s hand is also weakened when push comes to shove regarding his Cold War with Zahid. The support of the PAS, the PPBM and some new parliamentary members of the UMNO Guard will not ensure his victory in a leadership change.

The opposing coalition, Pakatan Harapan, faces similar challenges. Najib’s conviction will not bolster the opposition unless they take advantage of the expected instability within Perikatan Nasional. After the internal fractures caused by coalition pivot and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and other key leaders like Azmin Ali and Muhyiddin Yassin, Pakatan Harapan appears much weaker than 2018 and is an unfavorable alternative to Perikatan Nasional.

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Anwar Ibrahim – leader of Pakatan Harapan – faces increased scrutiny as Malaysia’s general election draws near. The only chance to revive Pakatan Harapan is with new leadership, but it’s unclear if Anwar or any Alliance leader would consider that option. The trial of Najib further complicates Malaysia’s political landscape. If the “disagreements” within the UMNO lead to another schism, there is no guarantee that an election will provide clarity.

The court’s decision to convict Najib was a landmark decision for the 1MDB case and Malaysia’s decades-long fight against corruption. Although UMNO’s kleptocrats remain partially in power, Najib’s conviction suggests that the Malaysian judicial system is ready to begin fighting corruption. But that will not be enough to improve Malaysia’s international reputation.

Fundamental reforms of the system of government and bureaucracy are needed to eradicate illegal activities such as state confinement and pork scooping. Najib’s conviction is a step in the right direction.

Ömer Faruk Yildiz is a Switzerland-based reporter for Anadolu Agency and writes articles on Southeast Asia for several Turkish language magazines.

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