An unflattering portrait of Malaysian politics

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Women walk past a portrait of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

As political parties begin to mobilize ahead of general elections which must be held by August 2018, Malaysia’s long-serving Prime Minister Najib Razak is arguably in his strongest political position in years.

While opposition parties continue to rally on an anti-graft platform centered on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund multi-billion dollar money laundering scandal, Najib appears increasingly confident he has ridden out the storm.

That was seen in Najib and his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s surprise visit last month to jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in hospital after he underwent surgery for a shoulder injury. It was the first time in Malaysia’s history that a sitting prime minister visited a prisoner.

Detained since 2015, Anwar is serving a five-year jail term after being found guilty of sodomy, a criminal offense in Muslim-majority Malaysia, on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Pictures of the political rivals circulated widely on social media, showing the premier grinning ear-to-ear amid rumors of his underlying motives.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak walks beside his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi during the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

Malaysian premier Najib Razak with his deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi during UMNO’s general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

While Najib likely intended to portray himself as being compassionate and above political animosities, some interpreted the visit as an “enforced” courtesy call. Indeed, while the bedridden opposition politician appeared cordial, his pictured family members were visibly uncomfortable.

Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Anwar’s wife and prominent opposition politician, remarked to the media that the visit underscored her husband’s status as a political prisoner.

Moreover, others speculated that the meeting signaled Najib’s attempt to drive a wedge between Anwar, de facto leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition, and ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the grouping’s chairman who last year broke away from Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) to join the opposition.

“There have been murmurs that Anwar is keen on retaking the reins of the opposition from Mahathir,” noted regional specialist Bhavan Jaipragas. “This could happen if Najib’s government made special provisions for the opposition leader to recuperate from his surgery under house arrest until his expected release date some time next year.”

PH has yet to decide on who to field as its prime ministerial candidate. Reports indicate that the opposition coalition will likely agree to name Mahathir and Wan Azizah as interim prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively, if the coalition wins the next general election.

Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), a key PH component party, remains understandably uneasy about Mahathir’s appointment given the bitter history between the former rival camps. PKR was established in the wake of the Anwar-led Reformasi protest movement in 1998, initiated following his dismissal as deputy prime minister by then-premier Mahathir.

FILE PHOTO: A combination photo shows Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in their offices in Malaysia on May 4, 2011 (L) and March 11, 2010. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad/File photo

Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (L) and jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in file photos. Photos: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

The opposition coalition also includes the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a multiracial party that enjoys wide support from ethnic Chinese voters, as well as two newly formed Malay-based parties: Parti Amanah Negara, splintered from the Islamist Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), and Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, led by prominent UMNO dissidents.

Opposition supporters with lukewarm sentiments about Mahathir have largely accepted him with the expectation that he would serve as a transitional figure, presumably until Anwar is released from jail. His advanced age has allayed fears that he would cling to power following a potential PH victory.

Nominating the 92-year-old Mahathir, who many credit with overseeing huge leaps in development during his 22-year tenure, is clearly a calculated strategy to help the opposition appeal to crucial voters in rural Malay constituencies. They have traditionally supported UMNO and its affirmative action policies that safeguard the economic and political interests of the ethnic Malay majority.

“Mahathir has chosen a path not too divergent from UMNO’s, and this attracts Malays who are interested in Anwar Ibrahim’s talk of reformation but are unable to let go of their racial dignity and sentiments,” says Ooi Kee Beng, executive director at the Penang Institute He believes the opposition’s strategy has created a “foundation” for shifting the Malay vote away from UMNO.

Former premier Mahathir, known for his bold and iron fisted rule, is widely viewed as the strongest contender to take on Najib at the polls. Mahathir still commands strong influence in Kedah, his home state, and his clout as a leader who delivered substantial economic goods may sway disgruntled lower-income Malays to switch political sides.

Indeed, Mahathir’s potential to reach rural constituencies appears to be unnerving UMNO, which has unconvincingly played the race card by attempting to portray him as a puppet of his former rival, Lim Kit Siang, the DAP’s ethnic Chinese leader.

Malaysia's opposition Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang speaks during a rally at a stadium in Kelana Jaya, Selangor on May 8, 2013. Thousands of Malaysians dressed in mourning black gathered May 8 to denounce elections which they claim were stolen through fraud by the coalition that has ruled for 56 years. AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN

Democratic Action Party leader Lim Kit Siang in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

The racially-tinged allegation implies the former premier has been co-opted by Lim, long accused by UMNO of being anti-Islamic and a Chinese-chauvinist, in a scheme to strip ethnic Malays of political power.

Ethnic Malays make up around 55% of the population while other indigenous bumiputra represent around 14%, according to census data. Ethnic Chinese account for around 23% of the population, while ethnic Indians comprise 7%.

Tepid support from the Chinese community has seen UMNO double-down on efforts to rally the majority Malay community. It has postured as a defender of the Islamic faith while playing on conservative fears of the erosion of religion and the loss of Malay political power if opposition parties win the polls.

A recent survey conducted in August by Institut Darul Ehsan found that 68% of ethnic Chinese Malaysian respondents favored PH, while only 21% supported the ruling coalition. Ethnic Chinese communities largely favored the Anwar-led opposition at the 2013 general election.

Even if PH captures key constituencies, analysts still see gerrymandering as the biggest obstacle to the opposition securing a majority in parliament. The 2013 general election saw the former opposition coalition win 50.8% of the popular vote yet only take 40% of parliament’s seats.

Members of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) listen to a speech by Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak during its general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin

UMNO members listen to premier Najib Razak speak during a party general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, December 7, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

“The election system here is controlled by the government and as the government becomes worse, it treats the [electoral] commission as a government department, not as an independent body,” said Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, a former chairman of Malaysia’s Election Commission, in remarks about a recent research paper critical of Malaysia’s electoral system.

The paper, authored by assistant professor Kai Ostwald of the University of British Columbia, shows a strong bias in the delineation of electoral boundaries in Malaysia, calling levels of malapportionment “among the highest in the world.” It also claims electoral deficiencies stem from “deliberate manipulations” to perpetuate continued UMNO rule.

UMNO’s annual general assembly opened earlier this week amid speculation that Najib, who is also party president, would use his strengthened position to issue a rally cry to party members and supporters ahead of the upcoming election, rumored to be called soon after Chinese New Year in mid-February.

Referring to the current moment in Malaysian politics as “decisive and monumental” in a December 7 speech, Najib emphasized alleged threats to the continuity of Malay political institutions, monarchy and the Muslim religion should the opposition win.

He alleged in his speech that the DAP – the smallest of the four PH component parties – intended to make the country “fully secular.” He also lambasted Mahathir for crossing aisles to challenge UMNO alongside a multiracial party, which he referred to as “anti-Malay and anti-Islam.” Yet he reiterated that UMNO was neither “racist” nor “anti-Chinese.”

A 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard at the Tun Razak Exchange development in Kuala Lumpur, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

Najib also used the opportunity to portray himself as an able custodian of the economy, which has recently been buoyed by stronger domestic demand and improving trade. Recent statistics show gross domestic product rose a higher than expected 6.2% in the third quarter, the fastest quarterly uptick in over three years.

Yet Just as UMNO’s annual congress opened, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement pertaining to the US Justice Department’s ongoing probe into 1MDB, a scheme he called “kleptocracy at its worst.”

US investigators believe more than US$3.5 billion was illicitly siphoned from the fund, much of it going to the personal accounts of a “Malaysian Official 1” widely believed to refer to the premier. Najib has consistently denied any wrongdoing, claiming US$681 million found in his personal bank accounts was a “gift” from a Saudi prince.

UMNO leaders continue to posture as though the scandal, now under criminal investigation in at least six countries, is a non-issue. And while PH campaigns on the alleged massive corruption, it runs the risk of emphasizing an issue that has largely faded from public view and less important to voters than their economic livelihoods.

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