Kedah Ouster of Mahathir’s Son a Pyrrhic Victory for M'sia's Najib

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak seemingly has landed a serious blow on his arch-enemy Mahathir Mohamad, the irascible 90-year-old former premier, by gathering the clout to remove Mahathir’s son Mukhriz as chief minister of the northern, conservative state of Kedah. But it has been a difficult two-week struggle that saw Mukhriz rallying thousands of people in a stadium in Alor Setar and persuading two of Najib’s backers to refuse to go along with his removal.

Political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say the 51-year-old Mukhriz’s ouster, announced today with the chief minister’s announcement that he is leaving the position, may be as damaging to Najib as it is to Mahathir. The premier appears to have weakened himself by being overconfident and nobody knows what played out behind the scenes. It is assumed that considerable political and financial favors were needed to change enough minds to win the day. One source with connections in Kedah flatly said Najib was forced to buy the votes to oust Mukhriz.

Some political analysts in Kuala Lumpur say that pushing out Mukhriz is tied to the tide of international scandals engulfing Najib.

The elder Mahathir and Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister whom Najib fired in July for asking too many questions about the US$681 million (RM2.8 billion) that ended up in the prime minister’s personal accounts in 2013, having been thwarted by Najib on a national level from engineering his removal, have turned to a grassroots guerrilla war among individual UMNO members disgusted with scandals in government. They hope they can eventually gather the numbers from below to overcome a majority of the 192 cadres who on a national level vote to keep Najib in power.

Despite getting Mukhriz out, the prime minister seems to have run into a groundswell of opposition in Kedah, both among UMNO cadres and the public, who rallied to back the chief minister. At his final press conference following his resignation, Mukhriz was asked what his feelings were and he answered with a single word: "Defiance."

Mukhriz’s fate was decided on Feb. 2 at a meeting of UMNO members with the Kedah Regency Council, the representatives of the sultan, in which Najib finally put together the forces to dislodge Mukhriz, long after a Jan. 20 press conference in which 19 of the 21 Barisan Nasional members of the Kedah Assembly announced they had withdrawn support for him.

The Kedah politics are said by political analysts to play into rising internal dissent within UMNO despite Najib’s use of lavish outright bribes, rent-seeking contracts and make-work jobs allotted to the voting members who keep him in power. A list of 37 charges prepared against Najib by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission tying him to widespread misuse of funds from 1Malaysia Development Bhd., the troubled state-backed investment funds, reportedly has been circulated widely.

Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali committed a major blunder at a press conference when he announced that no charges would be filed against Najib over his finances. When he waved documents from the investigation, photos of the papers showed clearly that Najib had been using credit cards funded with public money on shopping trips in Monaco and Italy.

In any case, a longtime political analyst in Kuala Lumpur called Najib’s move against Mukhriz a mistake, saying the prime minister either miscounted the votes to remove him or was too sure of his own governing prowess.

‘The move looks stupid and bad,” the political analyst said. “He should have calculated he could do it beforehand but he thought it was a slam dunk. It wasn’t.” Other analysts agreed that Najib’s miscalculation could be damaging, although hardly enough to drive him out of office.

The premier has proven himself tenacious figure in the face of some of the biggest scandals in Southeast Asia, earning two high-profile investigations in Switzerland and France and a third one pending before a federal Grand Jury in the United States. Singapore was added to the list of investigating governments on Feb. 2 with revelations that Singapore’s central bank and white-collar police have seized “a large number” of bank accounts in connection with possible money-laundering connected to 1MDB.

Mahathir – like his son a Kedah native – remains Najib’s biggest domestic enemy, which is what put his son in the gunsights. Najib installed Mukhriz in the job prior to the 2013 general election in a bid to counter the popularity of the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS. But as Najib has slowly driven out Mahathir’s allies within UMNO, Mukhriz became a target.

When the Kedah UMNO leaders led by Kedah Umno deputy chief Ahmad Bashah Md Hanipah declared they had lost confidence in Mukhriz’s leadership, Najib was said to have already secured approval from the Kedah sultan to replace him. Nineteen of the 21 representatives of the ruling Barisan Nasional signed a statutory declaration to oust Mukhriz, with two abstaining. Backed by large crowds of public Mukhriz supporters, the two came out in support of the embattled chief minister. Combined with opposition lawmakers, that meant Najib came close to losing the battle.

Najib has acted decisively before against chief ministers he regards as disloyal. In May of 2013, he pushed out Idris Jusoh as the head of the state of Terengganu against the wishes of most of the Barisan cadres in the state, replacing him with Ahmad Said. With two weeks now having passed after the Kedah lawmakers’ press conference, Najib, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur, looks weakened. If he had failed to get rid of Mukhriz, it would have been perhaps his only local failure in sidelining critics and opponents for the better part of a year.

In addition to Muhyiddin, those he has driven out include former Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail, an UMNO loyalist who appeared about to charge him with corruption; Shafie Apdal, the rural and regional development minister; and three others.