Najib Seeks to Keep Lid on Conflict at AGM

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to lead the United Malays National Organization on Dec. 8 into what could become the party’s most contentious annual general meeting since the 1980s, when then-Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah unsuccessfully challenged Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad within the party.

Traditionally, UMNO politics is about all the politics that matter in Malaysia. The ethnic Chinese and Indian parties that make up the ruling Barisan Nasional, along with parties in Sabah and Sarawak, largely do UMNO’s bidding. The opposition coalition led by the now-imprisoned Anwar Ibrahim fractured badly with the departure of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia over religious issues after winning the popular vote in the 2013 general election and has ceased to exist as an effective force.

If Najib makes it easily through the four-day conclave in Kuala Lumpur, the widespread expectation is that he will be able to coast all the way to general elections that are expected by April 2018 at the latest.

Although Najib goes into the meeting seemingly in full control, he may end up in a donnybrook over the scandals that surround his government. He has been the subject of deeply incriminating stories in many international publications but he has beaten back all criticisms by turning to his ethnic Malay base, which comprises more than 60 percent of the country, charging that the allegations are part of an anti-democratic plot to oust him.

The unspoken narrative is that the plot is led by the 23 percent of citizens who are Chinese, and who control the economic ramparts. He has answered by pushing through a national security law that would allow a security council to order the arrest of anybody, in any part of the country, without recourse to legal defense.

Rank & file erosion?

However, his relationship with the party rank and file has been deteriorating. In the face of a possible party uprising, he has postponed intraparty elections for 18 months. He has forbidden his fired Deputy Prime Minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, from addressing the 5,000-plus members of the parley despite the fact that Muhyiddin would normally be allowed to speak given his continuing position as deputy UMNO president.

Najib has also sacked critical delegates including Hamida Osman, the former information chief of Wanita, the women’s wing and a Wanita division chief, and punished seven party leaders including Muhyiddin for questioning him over allegations of corruption. He ordered the ouster of Anina Saadudin, a delegate from Langkawi, after she accused him of “pissing on the heads of 3 million UMNO members” by not resigning in the face of the corruption charges.

The magic number is 192

Nonetheless, the common wisdom is that Najib is insulated from losing his job because of the vast amounts of largesse he bestows on the 192 cadres who vote for his position as party president – up to RM1 million (US$237,000 at current rates) to potentially rebellious party leaders such as Shahrir Samad, the distinguished leader of the parliamentary backbenchers. He has ordered all speeches at the AGM to be vetted before they are delivered to make sure no accidents happen.

But, said Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob, an UMNO member and ally of Mahathir, Najib’s fiercest critic: “Najib has moved decisively to punish UMNO members who show disloyalty to him but it has only served to inflame the fire at the grassroots level nationwide. It appears that everything is calm but the undercurrents are strong. This AGM could be the curtain-raiser to internal UMNO war rather than a seal of approval for Najib and his loyalists.”

For months, Najib and his wife have been under fire from Mahathir, who has delivered a long series of smoking guns concerning the mysterious US$681 million that flitted into and out of Najib’s personal bank account in April of 2013without a trace. The seemingly intractable debts run up by the troubled state-backed 1Malaysia Development Fund Bhd are another part of the scandalous puzzle. He antagonized followers last week by not showing up in Parliament as scheduled to answer questions about where the money came from, or where it went.

No traction

So far, however, neither Mahathir nor a fractured opposition has gained any traction in driving Najib from office. A relatively small minority seem to listen to Mahathir’s constant drumbeat that the charges of corruption and the distaste for Najib’s wife, who has flaunted enormous wealth, will lead to the destruction of the party.

Led by Muhyiddin, a nascent protest movement is arising in the southern state of Johor, one of the most influential in UMNO. Muhyiddin’s home state, it was the birthplace of UMNO in 1946. The fired deputy prime minister was chief minister in the state until he rose in the party. He is close to the Sultan of Johor, who sent his personal helicopter to pick him up after he was fired.

According to local media, Muhyiddin has vowed to go down fighting. Despite the ban on his speech at the UMNO conclave, he is due to address his followers this evening, accompanied by Mahathir and other rebels, against warnings by UMNO General Secretary Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor that he could face charges if he “crosses the line.” He is gaining support from a grassroots coalition at the branch level of unknown size to attempt to force Najib out as party president and premier.

Although leaders of the movement claim to have the support of hundreds of branches, it’s difficult to know how serious the movement is. However, perhaps 100 have rebelled against Najib in Johor as well as 20 in Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state, and another 15-odd in Negeri Sembilan, southeast of Kuala Lumpur.

In the end, however, the 192 voting delegates are expected to keep the prime minister in his seat, partly because the AGM is so tightly structured that no official insurrection is going to be allowed. There is talk of keeping the press out, although there appears little need of that, with the mainstream media all owned by component parties of the Barisan. While there is an energetic on-line press, it has difficulty breaking through the chaff produced by an army of pro-government bloggers.