Could Malaysia’s Najib Pull Off a Snap Election?

For a complex of reasons including sacking investigators and neutralizing foes through the extensive use of Malaysia’s colonial-era sedition act, Prime Minister Najib Razak actually appears stronger today than he did three months ago in the middle of allegations of two massive scandals and dogged by speculation on the Al-Jazeera news network over possible implication in the 2006 murder of Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu.

That has raised an option – a long shot but still possible – that is being drawn up in the Prime Minister’s Department in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative and political capital. The option is a snap election, more than two and a half years before it is due. That is because voters are almost as disillusioned with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition, whose component parties are disorganized and fighting among themselves.

The only thing that the opposition has going for them is their good governance in Penang and Selangor. Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the moderate urban ethnic Malay party established by the now-jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, is split between his wife, the party’s head Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and the ambitious Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali. Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) earlier this year split into two parts over the issue of implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the state of Kelantan. The moderate splinter, Parti Amanah Rakyat, is cannibalizing rank-and-file membership from PAS itself.

The fundamentalist majority left in PAS is quickly distancing itself from the opposition, and how the leader, Abdul Hadi Awang will play the next election is still a big question, but three-cornered electoral fights, which would cripple the opposition even more, are a possibility. How quickly PAS is losing ground to Amanah is not really known yet. The only advantage from the PAS/Amanah split for the opposition is that they can leave behind the hudud bogey.

Although no political pundits foresee any early election, there are some definite signs that the option is on the table due to the way the 2016 budget was framed, with healthy development packages for the East Malaysia states of Sarawak and Sabah. In addition, the Prime Minister has been delivering conciliatory ethnic messages at annual general meetings of Gerakan and the Malaysian Indian Congress, two lesser ethnic components of the Barisan Nasional. The opposition Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party is strong and well-organized, but it is regarded with suspicion by the majority of ethnic Malays, who fear that the Chinese would dominate the political sphere the way they do the economic one.

If an election were to be held in the near future, it is plainly possible that Najib could pull off a victory for the United Malays National Organization, which he heads, and for the coalition of Indian, Chinese and East Malaysian parties that make up the rest of the Barisan Nasional. He would be able to finally eliminate the anti-Najib forces from parliamentary positions within UMNO itself through his power to select candidates and/or place his party rivals in unwinnable contests.

With no effective opposition leader at present, he would be able to finally to crush a disorganized opposition which has been cutting into Barisan support since a shock election in 2009 that for the first time denied the Barisan a two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament and weaken them electorally.

Upon presumably winning a spot election, he would have a full five years to maneuver, until 2021. The 1MDB and the RM2.6 billion “political donation” issues that have crippled his party and his personal popularity would sink into the background of a new parliamentary term. An election would be a good method to unify UMNO behind him, and the timing of an election sooner rather than later would put it out of the way before harder economic times are upon the county.

However, there are also risks. Anything can happen in politics, especially an election, at a time when the Barisan is regarded as almost irreparably corrupt. There is the possibility of sabotage within UMNO in many quarters, all across the country given the remaining but badly diminished clout of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, his most implacable enemy, who has said he would like to see him jailed.

Najib is going through a period of intense low popularity (although this does not necessary mean it will be reflected in voting patterns). The implementation of an unpopular 6 percent goods and services tax was botched and the devaluation of the ringgit is already causing great suffering in the electorate.

Having an early election is a major effort that would require great financial resources, organization and effort. It’s also high risk, but the rewards would be great should Najib pull a victory off.

Certainly the recent budget delivered by Najib on Oct. 23 could be framed as an election budget, a national election could be coordinated with the Sarawak election due next year, the recent rhetoric coming from Najib concerning Chinese are not pendatang – aliens – to Malaysia, a divided opposition at present, the arrests of opposition members, and even the visit of US President Barak Obama to Malaysia have put out positive signals for Najib.

Najib doesn’t need an election to defeat any external opposition. But it would be the best method for him to eliminate opposition within his own party. Najib cannot win GE-14, but the opposition can lose it.

The only hope for both the opposition and anti-Najib forces to bring down the premier is through an election. However that would not be an easy task. An opposition win would require a new leader to appear out of nowhere, a rapid deployment of a branch network for Parti Amanah Negara, trust in the DAP with more seats allocated to them this time around, a high level of sabotage within UMNO itself, and a minimum of three-cornered electoral fights with PAS.

Najib has complete control of the government, judiciary, and police. All checks and balances have been broken down, which makes him secure. Short of a revolt emanating from branch levels, nothing can remove Najib. Any hints of a revolt are being suppressed even now. This is his only Achilles heel.

Najib would have to carefully select his candidates and pay people to undertake the electioneering, rather than rely upon party workers. He has a number of dirty tricks up his sleeve like potentially prosecuting Nurul Izzah Anwar for her over her meeting with the daughter of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Jacel Kiram. The sultan was reportedly behind a 2013 invasion of Sabah, which he considers his sultanate. The invasion cost the lives of a score of Malaysian security forces.

An election would also be necessary for Najib at some point to safeguard the business interests of his family, which are extensive. He has nobody to trust to handing the reins of power to, and no possibility of immunity from prosecution.

An election is more a Mahathir strategy than Najib’s. He ran a full term after taking over from former Prime Minister Ahmad Badawi back in 2009. But the option is ready in case it becomes a necessity, and Najib is ready.

Murray Hunter is an Australian academician and development specialist now living in Thailand after teaching in Malaysian universities. He is a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.