Malaysia Returns to the Barisan Fold

With the announcement Wednesday that Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will step down next March for his battered deputy, Najib Tun Razak, to take power, it appears that the ruling national coalition will survive in power and continue to be led by the United Malays National Organisation.

Related story: Contradictions Plague Malaysia's Government

It is not without cost. In Najib, the country is getting a leader who was allegedly up to his eyeteeth as defense minister in a series of unsavory purchases of submarines, jet planes and other armaments on which individuals close to him and Umno earned vast "commissions."

There are also continued questions over the sordid October 2006 murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was shot in the head and blown up with explosives after being abducted in front of the home of Najib's best friend, the well-connected political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, who has been charged in the murder along with two of Najib's bodyguards. It beggars the imagination to believe that somehow Abdul Razak allegedly was able to involve the bodyguards without Najib's knowledge. In addition, according to a statutory declaration filed by a private detective hired by Razak Baginda, she was the lover of both men.

Abdul Razak and the two bodyguards have been standing trial for 17 months despite what looked to most legal observers like an open-and-shut case. While veering close to Najib's coattails numerous times, both the prosecution and the defence have hurriedly skated away from any mention of the deputy prime minister. The very length of the trial, the numerous delays and the striking out of evidence have raised suspicions that the proceedings are being drawn out to prepare for either acquittals or diminished sentences for the three, perhaps to keep them from pointing the finger at Najib.

Whether Najib can rule effectively is questionable. His selection in essence returns UMNO and the Barisan to the very people who generated electoral outrage by cronyism, nepotism and the creation of a class of what were called "Umnoputeras" basically getting rich off government largesse and running a series of government-linked companies into the ground. (Ethnic Malays are known as bumiputeras, or sons of the soil.)

There is not only the Altantuya case but a variety of other problems - the global economic crisis that is beginning to hit banking and exports, lukewarm support from a faction-ridden UMNO and barely concealed antipathy of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has accused Najib of being weak, indecisive and beholden to Badawi. There is also the growing clout of the man expected to be his deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, who is regarded as having engineered Badawi's departure.

In the meantime, the opposition may be fading. In the aftermath of March 8 elections that cost the Barisan four state governments and its two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat or parliament, it first appeared that the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim would be able to solidify its base and take over. However, Anwar made a daring public bet that he would have the forces in parliament to take over on September 16. When that didn't happen, Malaysians appear to be wearily returning to the Barisan fold, although some observers dispute that.

"After seeing how much instability there is and how unworkable the country is, even the Chinese will go back to the Malaysian Chinese Association," said a well-connected lawyer. "The economy must improve, everybody must do well financially. The general feeling is that the opposition has crested. The non-Malays and foreigners were supporting Badawi, thinking Badawi was going to do away with the Umno system. In the end, they think playing the game means no joy. Today, Anwar is mostly backed by non-Malays, the rest will all rally with Umno. The opposition wanted reform, they wanted change, but they didn't do it wisely. That just woke up the Malays."

The winner, or at least one of the winners, is Mahathir, who mounted a vitriolic campaign against the hapless Badawi almost immediately after the latter took over and began cancelling some of Mahathir's white elephant projects. Badawi initially instituted some badly needed reforms before pressure from within the party forced him to back away. He didn't help himself much by being largely ineffective. He also signalled to the judiciary that it was at least nominally independent, and the courts responded by freeing Mahathir's mortal enemy, Anwar, the former deputy prime minister, from six years in prison on sexual perversion charges that were largely viewed as trumped up.

Mahathir accused Badawi of cronyism and nepotism, ignoring the fact that cronyism and nepotism had reached unprecedented levels during his own 22-year reign. In particular, he went after Badawi's son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, whom he accused of controlling the prime minister and of using Badawi's name to gain success in business.

Mahathir ostentatiously quit the party after it appeared he would be investigated for his role in a judicial scandal in which a lawyer was surreptitiously videotaped describing the fixing of judicial appointments. However, he continued to pummel Badawi from outside the party and through his blog, Chedet.com, and to work through the party faithful that he had installed and promoted during his time in office. With Badawi now headed out, Mahathir has turned his sights on Khairy, who is seeking to become UMNO Youth leader Mahithir's son, Mukhriz, is expected to campaign for the same position.

Another winner is Muhyiddin Yassin, 51, a Johor-based UMNO stalwart who is currently the minister of trade and industry. He has also served as an UMNO vice president and in a variety of other cabinet posts. He is widely regarded as an eventual candidate for prime minister if UMNO can keep itself together.

Najib does face some uncertainty besides the questions over corruption and the murder. He must first go through the party election process, which starts today with nominations, and the election next March. He is being challenged by the septuagenarian Kelantan prince, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, but most observers believe Razaleigh, who repeatedly challenged Mahathir for primacy in the party, is a spent force.

He must also survive possible scrutiny over his role, if any, in the Altantuya murder. The courts and the legal system have deliberately overlooked allegations of Najib's complicity in the Mongolian woman's murder, and considerable related evidence of corruption on his part in the purchase of three French submarines for the Malaysian military ‑ a purchase that Altantuya may have participated in as a translator. This has been pushed under the carpet repeatedly, but if the opposition is in partial retreat, it seems unlikely that the compliant judiciary will move to take on a rising Najib.

Najib is also widely suspected to participating in the fabrication of new allegations against Anwar of consensual sodomy with a 23-year-old former aide. Anwar has denied the allegations, saying they were an attempt to drive him out of politics again. Although Anwar has been arrested and charged, it is unclear when or if the government will pull him into court. A bill has already been passed by the parliament to force him to give a DNA sample, something he has refused to do because, he claims, the sample could be misused and planted as evidence against him.