Najib Razak’s term as prime minister of Malaysia is now in its seventh year and there is every reason to believe he will continue to lead Malaysia for a long while yet.
Given his scandal-ridden tenure, this is a remarkable outlook, one enabled by the sidelining of opponents, an illiberal electoral system, a divided opposition, and civil leadership that took a wrong turn.
As unlikely as it seemed when the The Wall Street Journal reported investigations of corruption and malfeasance on a massive scale related to investment fund 1MDB, Najib, through the power of incumbency, has gone from strength to strength while his detractors have lost momentum.
Even if Najib wanted to resign he could not. Unlike former prime ministers, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and Mahathir Mohamed, who were forced to quit by their party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the corruption allegations and supporting evidence against Najib are too serious, substantive and too public (everyone knows about them). A face-saving exit strategy could not be designed without compromising its designers.
All powerful individuals who were brave enough to oppose the prime minister have been cut down to size. As demonstrated through the sackings of then deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, and then minister for rural and regional development Shafie Apda, Najib has systematically separated his detractors from the power, patronage and machinery that would have been required to topple him.
Mahathir Mohamed, Najib’s most vocal opponent, has also been diminished. This has been accomplished in two ways. Firstly, Mahathir’s power and influence has been cut down. His son, Mukhriz Mohamed, was forced to resign as the chief minister of Kedah, Mahathir’s home state. Mahathir was compelled to resign as chair of Proton (Malaysia’s national auto company) after earlier being fired as the chair of Petronas (the national oil company).
Most damaging however, was Najib’s suggestion that Mahathir had betrayed UMNO by working with the Chinese-dominated opposition. This resonated with UMNO supporters. Mahathir’s humiliation was complete when he lost the police escort accorded to former prime ministers.
On the institutional front, two of the four members of the high powered investigation team into the 1MDB are no longer there. Najib sacked the Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail while the Bank Negara (Central Bank) governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz retired. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission Commissioner Abu Kassim Mohammed, appointed by the prime minister has not said much. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), Khalid Abu Bakar is the only top ranking civil servant from that high powered investigation still in favour with Najib.
Similarly, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that had been vigorously investigating the 1MDB issue was severely compromised through the promotion of four of its members to ministerial positions, and the appointment of a new chairperson.
Then there is the electoral system. Bridget Welsh, in her extensive analysis of the recent Sarawak elections, demonstrated the extent to which Najib can rely on the illiberal electoral system to keep him in power. (Read Welsh’s extensive analysis here, here, here, here and here).
Some have suggested the Sarawak electoral results would not be replicated on the peninsula. But domestic politics have once again aligned in Najib’s favour as the opposition, civil society and the majority of the Rakyat, united in the general elections of 2008 and 2013, are now again fragmented.
The People’s Justice Party (PKR), which bridges the secular and the conservatives on the peninsula faces leadership transition uncertainty, both within the party itself and the opposition coalition. The party is split between those who support PKR deputy president Azmin Ali for leadership and those who don’t. Other possible candidates for the leadership include PKR vice president (and Anwar Ibrahim’s daughter) Nurrul Izzah, and PKR’s secretary general Rafizi Ramli.
Outside of the opposition coalition, Azmin Ali appears to have a good working relationship with the Islamic conservatives in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) but this has alienated both the Parti Amanah Negara (PAN), PKR’s newly formed coalition partner (in the new coalition Pakatan Harapan), made up of moderates who were purged by the PAS, and some members of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).
The upshot of all of this is there is no longer a united opposition to UMNO and Najib. In fact, PAS (the largest opposition party by membership) is now actively being courted by UMNO, and its newly chosen conservative leader, Abdul Hadi Awang, has defended Najib on several occasions.
Civil society, in particular Bersih, had been in recent years the champion of principled politics through its efforts to reform Malaysia’s flawed electoral system. However, the recent actions of its leading lights, Maria Chin Abdullah and Ambiga Sreenevasan, who have supported Mahathir Mohamed (albeit in their personal capacities) in his efforts to topple Najib, have sown confusion and discord.
Mahathir Mohamed has made it clear his ‘Save Malaysia’ campaign is primarily focused on toppling Najib and saving UMNO, and much less so on improving governance. One time supporters of the campaign, such as jailed former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, have come to see it primarily as a Mahathir vehicle rather than a genuine reform movement, as made clear in this scathing letter to PKR leaders.
With these formidable challenges crippling the opposition and his detractors, it is difficult to see how Najib can be dislodged.
This article first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter