Najib’s Guilty Verdict: A Whole New Political Chessboard

The historic guilty verdict given to former premier Najib Razak has led to much political bargaining among the country’s Malay parties. Such unabashed political gaming may lead to disillusionment with the country’s Machiavellian political culture.

Muhyiddin Yassin and Najib Razak at an annual UMNO meeting in 2015. The next few weeks could see intense political bargaining between parties, with ramifications for the former and his ruling coalition. (Photo: Mohd Rasfan, AFP)

Mohd Faizal Musa

Norshahril Saat

3 August 2020

Following former prime minister Najib Razak’s guilty verdict, the political chessboard in Malaysia may yet shift again. The former prime minister and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) president will remain as an MP for now until his appeal verdict is out, but he will not be able to run if an election is called now. Before this, UMNO was keen to call for a snap election. By remaining in the ruling Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition led by prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, UMNO would have strolled to victory easily. It would also remain the dominant party in the ruling coalition, even bigger than Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

The verdict has forced UMNO to consider other plans. The latest is that the party has pulled out of PN, and sought to strengthen Muafakat Nasional, UMNO’s all-Malay/Muslim alliance with the Islamic party Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS). The move has compelled Muhyiddin’s camp to appeal for Bersatu to formally join the MN. While UMNO’s move has not led to the Muhyiddin government’s downfall, the prime minister is now at the mercy of UMNO leaders who may choose to fight the next election without Bersatu.

The next few weeks could see intense political bargaining between parties. In contemporary Malaysia, where political expediency trumps ideology, this bargaining may also see rivals teaming up together in a bid for power.

Muhyiddin Formally Rejoins UMNO

One possible outcome is for Muhyiddin to re-join UMNO. This will circumvent any unnecessary bickering over the allocation of seats during an election between UMNO and Bersatu. This also makes more sense to those who question the need for two separate Malay-based parties in a single coalition. Yet, the move could sideline Muhyiddin’s ally Azmin Ali and his supporters. The former Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy-president had been fighting UMNO for decades before joining the PN government this year. Moreover, not all UMNO MPs are inclined to work with Bersatu. Veteran UMNO leader Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah has gone a step further. He has argued that UMNO should recover all its seats that Bersatu has won in the last GE.

In truth, UMNO is not as homogeneous as one would have imagined. UMNO deputy president Mohamad Hasan may capitalise on the situation if UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is also found guilty for his court cases. As UMNO Acting President between December 2018 and June 2019, he was instrumental in forging the MN pact between UMNO and PAS. Who will he work with remains a question mark, but former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad once said he is ready to work with UMNO members not embroiled in any court cases. To the point, Hasan has no ongoing court cases for corruption. With Najib and Zahid weakened, this cooperation is on the cards – or at the least, not off the table.

Mahathir and the Third Force

Mahathir seemed to have made way for Sabahan, former UMNO leader, and Warisan president Shafie Apdal as prime minister candidate. Shafie is himself a victim of efforts trying to undermine his Sabah government. Though weakened, Mahathir still commands support among MPs across the political divide, including some UMNO MPs. Right now, only PKR president Anwar Ibrahim has openly disagreed with Mahathir’s plans to make Shafie prime minister candidate. But other PH parties, such as the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Amanah may be amenable to this bargain. Mahathir, who is toying with the idea of forming a new political party or joining an existing party, may cobble enough allies to be a third force in GE15. He may use the upcoming Slim River by-election – which will be held by the end of August – as a test bed.

Whatever decisions politicians take, the narratives to justify their realignments must convince the electorate. Malaysians are already upset with the politicians’ party hopping behaviour and performances in parliament.

Muhyiddin Returning to PH

Some have speculated about the possibility of Muhyiddin rejoining PH. This is however unlikely because it will make him strange bedfellows with Anwar Ibrahim. In February, it was Muhyiddin and Azmin Ali who precipitated PH’s downfall through the historic “Sheraton Move.” Among the reasons for their defection was disagreement with Anwar’s camp demanding prime minister Mahathir to step down, and that PH was dominated by the Chinese-dominant party DAP. While Muhyiddin may be able revive PH to the level of the 2018 election victory, the political calculations are different now. Azmin may not agree to reunite with Anwar, after the confrontational PKR congress last year. In addition, the other PH parties DAP and Amanah now regard the Muhyiddin and Azmin’s camps as rank traitors. Moreover, it remains doubtful if Anwar wants to play second fiddle to Muhyiddin; to begin, the eighth prime minister post was meant to be his, and not Muhyiddin’s. Nevertheless, it would still make more sense for Muhyiddin to reconcile with Mahathir.

Whatever decisions politicians take, the narratives to justify their realignments must convince the electorate. Malaysians are already upset with the politicians’ party hopping behaviour and performances in parliament. Since Mahathir’s decision to team up with his prodigy-turned nemesis turned ally Anwar Ibrahim in 2018, Malaysian politics have witnessed a series of betrayals (and counter-betrayals). It is difficult to differentiate between friends and foes, but their behavior may have the effect of normalising Machiavellian politics as part of the country’s political culture. Malaysians cannot be disabused of the fact that the parties are effecting an unabashed campaign for power, and power for power itself. This is seen as going over the interests of the rakyat, which has been hit by a triple whammy of the Covid-19 pandemic, the stuttering economy and job losses. Such disillusionment may take generations to correct.

Dr Mohd Faizal Musa is Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and Dr Norshahril Saat is Senior Fellow at the same institute.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/108

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.