Malaysia’s Najib Calls 14th General Election

Asia Sentinel has prepared a three-part package on Malaysia’s forthcoming election. For an in-depth profile of Najib Razak, see Najib Razak: A Kleptocrat Skilled at the Game. For an in-depth profile of Mahathir Mohamad, see Mahathir: Malaysia's Prophet of Doom or Second Messiah?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak took to television on April 6 to announce he would dissolve parliament the next day, clearing the way for the country’s 14th general election. Although he has 60 days to call the election, the common wisdom is that it will be held as soon as possible, perhaps even within 10 days, in an effort to keep the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition on the back foot.

Although there is no reliable polling and the mainstream media are wholly owned by pro-government parties and considered unreliable, political observers in Kuala Lumpur say the Barisan Nasional is running scared despite boasts that the ruling coalition would gain back its two-thirds majority in Parliament, which it lost in 2008.

If anything, the race is shaping up as a monumental skirmish between the embattled Najib and the 92-year-old former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who has been cris-crossing the country for months, campaigning to drive him and the United Malays National Organization, which leads the national coalition, from power.

As an indication of Barisan uneasiness, the Registrar of Societies announced it has suspended Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, which Mahathir heads, and it is uncertain if the party can mount a legal or administrative challenge to participate within the 30 days for appeal. The party isn’t allowed to use its logo or participate in any party activity. With Mahathir at its helm, it was expected to play a crucial role in garnering rural Malay votes. It will instead campaign as part of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, headed by jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

“The registrar was already indicating they would suspend or deregister the party because they hadn’t submitted their annual accounts,” said a Malaysian political analyst with close ties to the ruling coalition, “but Mahathir maintains that under the law they weren’t required to because they haven’t been in existence for a year. Basically, the registrar was acting on the bidding of Najib. We knew they would be suspended or deregistered.”

Given the loyalty of the courts and the administration to the ruling coalition, it seems unlikely that the party will be able to participate. Najib, said the analyst, “is running shit-scared because he knows if he loses, he goes to jail and his entire family will be wearing orange jumpsuits,” a reference to Malaysia’s prison garb.

The fact is that there is widespread disenchantment with the Barisan after years of spectacular scandals. The civil service is bloated by make-work jobs for thousands of ethnic Malays, members of parliament have been bribed by Najib to keep him at the head of the United Malays National Organization, favored oligarchs are regularly awarded rent-seeking contracts at inflated costs, the courts are clearly in thrall to the government and protesting UMNO and government officials have been driven from power.

Economic issues break for the opposition, with 72 percent of voters nationwide saying the rising cost of living, economic hardship, jobs and other related matters, remained their topmost concern in the most recent poll by Merdeka Centre. Some 29 percent of respondents said they didn’t possess a minimum of RM500 in savings for an emergency and 40 percent said they regularly delay paying utility and other bills.

Although all news of it has been suspended domestically and outside news sources including Sarawak Report and Asia Sentinel have been blocked in Malaysia by the Ministry of Communications, Najib and UMNO are caught in the coils of what is arguably Asia’s current biggest scandal, with US$4.5 billion having gone missing from 1Malaysia Development Bhd., a state-backed firm whose purpose was to invest government funds for income purposes. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose Justice Department officials have sequestered hundreds of millions of dollars of assets traced to Najib, his immediate family or close associates, has termed the scandal a "kleptocracy."

However, with only 10 days or so of campaigning, the odds are against the opposition. Earlier this week the government rammed a bill through the parliament in record time outlawing what it called “fake news” with penalties up to six years in prison and a fine of RM500,000 (US$129,000). The bill, whose definitions are imprecise at best, is aimed at Malaysia’s energetic social media scene, just about the last source of independent comment in the country. Facebook reaches 80.8 percent of the population, YouTube another 6.12 percent. A sizeable and energetic corps of bloggers – including Mahathir – regularly savages the government. The country’s most reliable independent news site, Malaysiakini, is said to be deeply worried by the legislation.

In addition, the government in March handed down a delineation exercise redistributing parliamentary districts that would seemingly make it nearly impossible for the opposition to win a majority, crowding as many as 150,000 opposition voters into some districts, while government-backed seats have as few as 4,000. Mahathir has exhorted Malays to go to the polls, saying participation of at least 85 percent will be necessary to overcome the gerrymandering.

The sedition, government secrets, printing and presses and security laws have been used to cow the opposition and keep them at bay. Anwar remains in prison on charges that are universally condemned by human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The country has fallen to 144th in global rankings by Reporters Without Borders in terms of press freedom.

In addition, Najib has skillfully played religious and ethnic issues in a country where racial tensions are never very far from the surface, splitting the rural-based fundamental Parti Islam se-Malaysia with an offer of legislation to allow shariah law in the party’s Kelantan base. That caused a major segment of the party to quit and form a new party that so far has gained little traction.

The common wisdom in Malaysia is that even with all of the drawbacks, antipathy towards the government and other negative forces, the Barisan probably will win a majority of parliamentary seats although not a majority of voters.

“It’s going to be very close,” the political analyst said. “The opposition say delineation affects them a little bit and that they may lose by a small majority as of last week. But at the same time, if public sentiment is totally against UMNO, who knows, they could come in by a whisker.”

That raises the question what Najib is likely to do. On May 13, 1969, when the Chinese-dominated opposition won the popular vote although the then-ruling alliance took a reduced number of seats in parliament, racial unrest led to a declaration of a state of national emergency amid Malay-Chinese racial violence that took an official 196 lives, although western diplomatic sources put the figure at more than 600, most of them Chinese.

Although racial tensions persist to today, that doesn’t imply that the situation could explode again, especially if Mahathir, long a champion of Malay superiority, is leading the opposition.