Najib Eyes Comeback in Local Malaysia Polls After 1MDB Scandal
(Bloomberg) -- A pro-Malay party associated with former premier Najib Razak decisively won a crucial state poll in Malaysia, cementing its power ahead of a general election due in 2023 and providing him with an opportunity to reinvent himself politically after a slew of corruption charges.
The polls in Malacca mark the first significant win for Najib’s United Malays National Organisation that returned to the top seat of the government three months ago. UMNO’s coalition won two-thirds of the 28 seats in Malacca state found in central peninsular Malaysia, giving it a super majority.
Najib was Malaysia’s premier from 2009 until the multibillion ringgit corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB cost his party the 2018 election. He has since been rehabilitating his image through social media, gaining traction among followers with his jibes against the two governments that succeeded his. A strong win in Malacca would now galvanize him politically.
The state has been an UMNO stronghold for the most part -- slipping away only briefly in 2018 to a Pakatan Harapan-led coalition. Najib has been at the forefront of the party’s election campaign, even as he is appealing a criminal conviction and faces dozens of corruption charges.
With Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob preoccupied with national matters including battling the pandemic, and UMNO president Zahid Hamidi out of the country for medical reasons, Najib is set to take all the credit for the the victory.
“We were faced with repeated attacks and slanders from opponents,” Najib said in a Facebook post after his party declared victory. “The people chose stability for the sake of prosperity.”
Supporters flocked to Najib’s Facebook page to congratulate him after the polls, which didn’t allow for face-to-face campaigning and gatherings due to the pandemic. Many referred to Najib as a boss, which was part of his popular catchphrase: “What’s to be ashamed of, my boss?”
“The big winner tonight is Najib as he was the lead UMNO person in Malacca. This will increase his political standing in UMNO and will make it much harder for Ismail Sabri to take action against him,” said James Chin, a political analyst from the University of Tasmania. “If this trend continues to the 15th general election, then UMNO will be back in federal government.”
The former premier has already shown he’s resilient and continues to wield clout in his party.
Najib thwarted the government’s attempt to forfeit luxury items from him as well as its bid to prove 114 million ringgit ($27 million) seized from a residence linked to him was part of 1MDB’s stolen funds. He was also instrumental in the fall of the previous Bersatu-led government in August.
He recently applied for a piece of government land and for the government to develop a house for him on it, invoking a privilege bestowed to former prime ministers, Finance Minister Zafrul Abdul Aziz told parliament Thursday.
The cabinet is yet to decide on the application, which requires parliament’s approval, he added. Opposition lawmakers opposed the move, saying it would cost the government 100 million ringgit, a figure that Zafrul didn’t deny.
UMNO’s decisive win could also pave the way for the party to continue dominating politics in the next general election, and perhaps well through the decade. Prime Minister Ismail’s appointment in August marked UMNO’s comeback to the country’s top post after just three years on the periphery. The party had ruled Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 before its ouster in 2018.
The party beat other alliance partners in the national government for some of the Malacca seats. Bersatu, which was headed by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin, got two seats so far while Islamist party PAS had none.
This would now guarantee multi-cornered contests in the next general election as it seeks to eliminate Bersatu and PAS, according to Wong Chin Huat, a professor of political science at the Jeffrey Sachs Center on Sustainable Development at Sunway University in Malaysia.
Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan secured four seats, a setback for the opposition coalition that was hoping its anti-corruption campaign against Najib would translate into votes. Anwar’s own party didn’t get any seats.
Part of the reason might have been due to the low turnout at polls that often works against the opposition. Voter fatigue from Malaysia’s protracted political turmoil -- the country had three governments since 2018 -- has seen a low turnout of at least 61% for the state poll compared to the usual 75% and above.
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