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Malaysia Readies for Polls in a Radical New Landscape
Departure of UMNO old guard for jail could awaken new opportunities
Sometime over the next few months or even weeks, in a radically changed atmosphere, Malaysia’s coalition government is expected to call its 15th general election, which must be held before September 14, 2023. That is because the ruling Barisan Nasional’s kingmaker, the man who has dominated its politics for more than a decade and its underground funding since the 1980s, is in prison.
Since well before becoming prime minister in 2009, Najib Razak, who is now in Kajang Prison for 12 years and facing several corruption trials for even bigger crimes, has used his ministerial portfolios, particularly defense, to provide the 191 division chiefs of the United Malays National Organization with a steady river of funds every month from a vast trove of money stolen from a myriad defense and other contracts, including 1Malaysia Development Bhd, accrued over more than 50 years in politics.
That money is now gone for UMNO’s chieftains, leaving them scrambling to come up with election funds by massaging the scores of state contracts that are mostly nothing more than a method for rent-seeking.
Neither the Barisan Nasional, now led by UMNO vice president Ismail Sabri Yaakob, nor the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, appears ready for the election although Sabri a week ago, in response to questions, said he would seek dissolution of the parliament soon. He is scheduled to meet with UMNO’s top five leaders on September 30, with pundits – some pundits anyhow – predicting he would dissolve the parliament after the budget is tabled on October 7, paving the way for an end-November or early December general election. Others think Sabri, faced with an unappetizing economic situation and disarray in his party, will hold off.
The legal earthquake that put Najib in prison on August 23 after having been convicted of 12 counts of corruption and money-laundering in a case related to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal, which has cost the government at least US$5.4 billion, has changed the equation in Malaysian politics in a way that seems unlike anything that has taken place in Southeast Asia in recent history. Najib’s wife Rosman Mansor has been convicted and is likely to follow him into prison, as is Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO president, who is on trial for 45 counts of corruption for allegedly looting a charity he established and looks likely to be judged guilty.
The courts, especially the Federal Court, the nation’s top tribunal, were cleaned up dramatically with the appointment of judges not committed to political parties during the three years in which the Pakatan Harapan coalition ruled the country. Ironically, the appointments were made at the behest of Mahathir Mohamad, who headed the coalition during its time in power. It was Mahathir who was blamed for emasculating the courts in the first place when a series of decisions went against him.
The result has been dramatic. A so-called “court cluster” of other UMNO officials is likely headed for prison as well, destroying the image of invincibility that has kept the Barisan in power except for the three-year interregnum of Pakatan Harapan government that took power in 2018 following the 14th general election. The Cluster is nonetheless squeezing Ismail Sabri to call the polls despite the imminent arrival of the seasonal monsoon and predictable flooding disruptions across the country.
“This will be the first time a GE is deliberately timed for low turnout during the monsoon season,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based businessman. “Zahid and his fellow thieves desperately hope to regain the dominant majority in Parliament to withdraw all charges and cancel court proceedings.”
Given the stern dominance of a newly impartial court system, that seems unlikely. The Barisan wrested power back last year. Now, however, with its money supply crippled, its leaders facing prison, its current leaders squabbling for power, the opportunity ought to be there for Pakatan Harapan, led by the 75-year-old opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to return to power and rededicate itself to the reform agenda it outlined in 2018 when it ousted the Barisan, made up of UMNO and its component ethnic parties the rural Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the Malaysian Indian Congress, with a string of other splinter parties.
That is unlikely, however, according to political analysts, one of whom predicted the Barisan would likely come out of the election with 129 to 130 of the 222 parliamentary seats, leaving Pakatan Harapan with perhaps 100.
“With the opposition still in disarray, largely due to Anwar’s lack of leadership and clarity of vision, the Barisan should win with the support of (political parties in the East Malaysian state of) Sarawak. But it’s unlikely to be a super majority,” he said. “But it looks like we will have a two-party system for the time being. The days of UMNO lording it over the rest with a super majority are over.”
The biggest question is why Pakatan Harapan, an ostensible reform coalition made up of Anwar’s multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, and the moderate Islamic party Amana, couldn’t wipe the floor with the Barisan and its massive corruption, its rent-seeking leaders, with cadres’ fingers in virtually every contract let by the government, with the mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, skyrocketing inflation, and growing joblessness.
The answer as it has been for six decades, lies partly in the country’s delicate ethnic makeup and partly in the disarray of the opposition. Anwar, a galvanic public speaker who sways enormous crowds, seems unwilling to make decisions or to allow Rafizi Ramli, Parti Keadilan’s 45-year-old deputy president, to get things moving. Rafizi, on the other hand, is accused of being too brash and unwilling to cater to the coalition’s elder statesmen.
“The DAP guys literally hate Rafizi,” said a longtime source. “He’s smart, but a disrupter. He keeps telling these senior guys ‘it’s my way or the highway and they won’t put up with it.”
Anwar is not exhorting his troops to battle,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based source. “He seems to have no coordinated strategy with the DAP, Amana, etc. There seems no fire, no enthusiasm, or driving motivation in Harapan. Anwar is miffed and muted over the fact that Rafizi commands the PKR. He is not the boss in his own shop. So he just squats on his lucrative salary, perks, and pension. Rafizi can’t rally the coalition without him.”
Anwar, he said, refuses to let go for the next line of leadership.
The Malaysian United Democratic Alliance, formed in September 2020 as a multi-racial and youth-centric party formed by Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, has attracted a growing number of young adherents and hopes to win four or five seats in the coming election. But while there has been increasing debate over multiracial parties within the political landscape, with PKR perhaps the closest with its relatively liberal urban Malay makeup sprinkled with Chinese and Indians, party leaders themselves are very negative towards such suggestions.
There is an urgency to create a viable multiracial structure. Failure to act before GE15 would allow the current Malay-centric parties to consolidate their power well into the next decade. If this becomes the case, the government will be more of the same with lots of power struggles and with GLCs and contracts continuing to go to the favored, interfering with policy focus.
The dramatically changed political landscape, with Najib and his cronies gone from the scene, might give the country its best chance to move in a new direction.