Malaysia’s Mahathir Seeks to Lead New Party Against Najib

How much chance the rebel political party being established in Malaysia and backed by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has of besting the deeply corrupt Barisan Nasional is open to question. But it is emblematic of the desperation by his opponents to break the power of the United Malays National Organization and Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Muhyiddin Yassin, fired by Najib as deputy prime minister and deputy party president after Muhyiddin questioned the source of hundreds of millions of dollars steered into Najib’s personal bank account, on Aug. 4 announced the formation of the new party, which so far hasn’t been named, and said he would attempt to register it tomorrow with Malaysia’s Registrar of Societies.

While some observers expressed doubts that the government would allow it to come into existence, statements by some officials seemed to indicate that the party would be given permission. It’s uncertain how potent a force it might be. In May, Mahathir announced he had collected 1.07 million signatures on a “Citizens’ Declaration” calling for Najib’s removal. Whether those would translate into an ethnic Malay party to rival UMNO is questionable.

Adding to the pressure, Maria Chin Abdullah, the head of the electoral reform movement Bersih (clean) said that at some point the organization would hold its fifth mass rally to protest issues produced by the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal, arguably the biggest in Malaysian history, involving the theft of as much as US$4 billion, according to authorities in the United States and Switzerland. Despite drawing as many as 100,o00 people, the previous rallies have had little effect on the government, if any

Theoretically the new party couldn’t come into existence at a better time. On July 20, US Justice Secretary Loretta Lynch delivered a devastating 136-page report alleging money laundering and the fraudulent purchase of US assets by Najib’s son in law Riza Aziz and Jho Taek Low, the Penang-born financier who led Najib into the morass of the scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Bhd. The complaint named Malaysian “Public Official 1” 34 times in the report, including having received US$681 million in funds stolen from the flailing state-backed development fund.

As has been widely reported, at least seven countries are investigating allegations of money laundering and criminality, both on the part of 1MDB and Najib and his family

But Najib has proven a tenacious target, in effect telling foreign countries to butt out of his business. Attending a forum on Islamic finance in Indonesia this week, he said “I have always been a proponent of openness to the world and collaboration, but we must insist on respect for our own sovereignty, our own laws, and our own democratically elected governments.”

Well prior to the current situation, he has threatened opposition members with sedition charges. Amnesty International has criticized the government for threatening hundreds of people, including journalists and public figures. The new anti-terrorism act that went into effect on Aug. 1 adds another dimension to the government’s ability to crack down. Whether it is true or not, there are rumors in Kuala Lumpur that he is preparing an “Erdogan list,” named for the Turkish prime minister who, having survived a coup in July, has jailed hundreds of political opponents.

Najib and his UMNO lieutenants have resisted all attempts at forcing them out and in fact threatening to charge three top public officials for allegedly having spoken to the FBI. The opposition is fragmented and cowed by threats of sedition and anti-terrorism charges.

The new party, said a Kuala Lumpur-based analyst, “will only seek to split Malay votes five ways – UMNO, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Amanah (formed when the Islamist PAS split last year) and Tun Mahathir’s party.”

Although he expressed doubts that Najib would allow the party to be registered with the Registrar of Societies, ‘’if I were Najib, I would let it go ahead,” he said, “because it would split the votes of Malays who are fed up with Najib and UMNO but won’t vote for PKR or PAS.”

Along with that, the idea of Mahathir as a reformer seeking to head a crusading opposition is galling to many, who say the corrupt system, built on rent-seeking and corrupt companies living off government contracts, was put in place by Mahathir during his 22 years as prime minister.

As Prime Minister, he also jailed many of those now in the opposition including Lim Kit Siang and his son, Lim Guan Eng of the Democratic Action Party, during the infamous Operation Lalang in 1987, putting them in prison for months under the country’s infamous Internal Security Act.

“The DAP is not willing to accept a new party headed by Dr M,” a source said. They would prefer that Mahathir’s people are absorbed into Amanah or PKR – which won’t happen.” Nor is Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, the wife of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who Mahathir had jailed on trumped-up charges of sexual perversion, likely to countenance coming under Mahathir’s leadership. Anwar, moldering in prison after Najib engineered his second conviction on sexual perversion charges, in May said he wanted nothing to do with Mahathir’s efforts.

“Still, anything is possible,” he said. Others say they are willing to give the 91-year-old Mahathir the benefit of the doubt. In any case, they say, they have little choice. The rest of the opposition is fighting among themselves and Mahathir remains a towering if flawed figure.

“It’s true that Mahathir allowed all those things to happen during his watch,” said Din Merican, an indefatigable critic who is now teaching political science at a Cambodian university, on his Facebook page. “However, he has been off the stage for well over a decade. Surely Malaysians could rise above and rectify his mistakes. Besides, he is trying very hard to undo his errors. Help him to succeed, and once that is achieved you could then engage in a post-mortem and assign blame."

According to local press reports, among the leaders of the new party, besides Mahathir and Muhyiddin are Mukhriz Mahathir, Mahathir’s son, the former Kedah chief secretary, who was ousted after questioning Nahib’s activities, and leaders of several ethnic Malay student groups. Mahathir said the party would align itself with Pakatan Harapan, the opposition coalition made up of the DAP, Amanah and Anwar’s PKR.