Malaysian By-elections Likely to Ratify Najib Leadership

Malaysians will go to the polls on June 18 in twin by-elections regarded as a referendum on the leadership of the scandal-ridden United Malays National Organization and its leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Unless there is a major black swan event, say perhaps a string of indictments in the seven jurisdictions investigating the debt-strapped 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the state-backed investment fund, Najib is expected to coast to victory, possibly setting the stage for a snap nationwide election that would keep the ruling national coalition in power for another five years.

The two seats, one in the Selangor state district of Sungai Besar and the other in Kuala Kangsar in Perak state, came open with the deaths of UMNO leaders Noriah Kasnan and Wan Mohamad Khairal Anuar Wan Ahmad in a helicopter crash in Sarawak in May as they campaigned for the Barisan Nasional in state-wide elections that also were won handily by the Barisan Nasional, as the coalition is known. That is despite the fallout from the 1MDB scandal, in which as much as US$4 billion is believed to have disappeared into money-laundered accounts in Switzerland and Caribbean countries with opaque banking laws. 1MDB, which is now being wound up, is believed to have unfunded debts of RM50 billion.

About the best the opposition can hope for, according to a lawyer with ties to former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is that they limit the magnitude of the Barisan’s win. “If the Barisan wins big, then Najib is solid,” he said. Mahathir, who has turned on his protégé, has been attempting to drive him from power for more than a year. “A reduced majority means protest results against Najib add momentum to the movement trying to get rid of him.”

The heavily ethnic Malay seats have traditionally been contested by UMNO and the rural-based Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. Leading the fight for the opposition Pakatan Harapan, formerly known as Pakatan Rakyat, is Amanah, which was formed last year by moderate Malays who rebelled against PAS’s call for the implementation of hudud, or harsh Islamic law, in the one state PAS controls, the northeastern state of Kelantan.

With both PAS and UMNO fielding candidates, the likelihood that Amanah could pull off victories in the two races is slim. Najib has played a canny game, allowing PAS leader Hadi Awang to fast-track a measure that would impose age-old punishments for certain classes of crimes under Shariah law including theft, sex out of wedlock, consumption of liquor and drugs and apostasy for Kelantan. The amendments, which would only apply to Kelantan, may or may not be debated in October. The move is almost unprecedented. In parliamentary systems, allowing an opposition leader to introduce a private measure is unheard of. Nonetheless, on May 26, the final day of the parliamentary session, Azalina Othman Said, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, suddenly tabled a motion allow PAS to implement the criminal code in Kelantan.

Whether that ever happens is debatable. Constitutional scholars say the implementation in Kelantan would be in contravention of the federal constitution. Skeptics believe Najib only allowed the amendment to go forward as a ploy to appeal to the Malays in the two rural districts, with whom it is very popular. Certainly, implementation would run directly counter to Najib’s characterization of his country as a moderate Muslim society in international forums and before the United Nations. The Sungei Besar district is made up of 66 percent Malays and 31 percent Chinese, with the rest split between Indians and other ethnic groups. The Perak district is 68 percent Malay, 24 percent Chinese and 7 percent Indian and other ethnic groups. The Barisan won them both by razor-thin margins of 1 percent and 4 percent respectively in the 2013 general election.

Opposition leaders charged on billboards that PAS and UMNO had collaborated on putting up competing candidates in the effort to split the vote and make it even more difficult to win. They took the billboards down after PAS leaders threatened suit.

The Pakatan Harapan opposition, however, can hardly lay the blame on Najib’s fast set of heels. The coalition has been stumbling badly for more than a year. Formerly made up of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, the moderate Malay Parti Keadilan Rakyat headed by the since-jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim, and PAS, the coalition came apart last year over PAS’s push for hudud in Kelantan. The common wisdom in Malaysia is that Najib tacitly backed PAS’s attempts to push the legislation because it was so completely unacceptable to the other two wings of the opposition. Whether he did or didn’t, Hadi Awang’s insistence upon pushing for hudud not only tore up the opposition coalition but sundered PAS itself into two groups. Amanah, which has continued to reach out to more moderate religious voters, has so far had little impact.

The 90-year-old Mahathir, who has made it a crusade to attempt to bring down Najib, has joined the campaign on Amanah’s side although many regard him with less than full enthusiasm. Anwar, writing from his prison cell, warned the coalition to be suspicious of Mahathir. It was Mahathir who put Anwar in jail in 1999 on charges of sexual deviance that were universally regarded as trumped up in an attempt to ruin his political career. In addition, Anwar’s Parti Keadilan is split itself, with Rafizi Ramli, the party’s secretary general, accusing Selangor Chief Minister Azmin Ali’s government of trading sex and money for favors.

In the meantime, backed by the 190-odd UMNO division chiefs, Najib has managed to turn back all attempts to bring him to bay over the 1MDB scandal, which is arguably the biggest in the country’s history. He has refused to answer questions over U$681 million that found its way into his own bank account in March of 2013 and as mysteriously disappeared a few months later. He has fired his attorney general and replaced him with a lapdog, blocked all parliamentary and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission investigations into his activities and defied a request to probe his own bank accounts by Bank Negara, the country’s central bank. There appears little to stop him from continuing in power domestically. His allies have characterized the international investigations as somehow instigated by dark powers attempting to bring down parliamentary democracy in Malaysia. The June 18 elections are likely to validate his leadership.

In Kuala Kangsar, the UMNO candidate is Mastura Mohd Yazid, whose husband was killed in the Sarawak crash. PAS Perak women's chief Najihatussalehah Ahmad and physicist Ahmad Termizi Ramli, representing Amanah, are seeking the seat for the opposition. In Sungai Besar, the Barisan candidate an UMNO assemblyman, Budiman Mohd Zohdi. PAS is also fielding a state assemblyman, Dr Abdul Rani Osman. Amanah's candidate is division Chief Azhar Abdul Shukur.