Malaysia's PM Tries to Contain a Political Crisis

Malaysian Premier Najib Tun Razak has suddenly found himself in a political crisis after he cashiered the chief minister of the east coast state of Terengganu for nonperformance a year after May 2013 national elections, raising concerns that his job could be in danger.

United Malays National Organization officials had to scramble to contain the damage after the chief minister, Ahmad Said, resigned and quit the party in a huff, followed by two other state assemblymen. Ahmad Said had vainly asked to stay on until the end of May so that his daughter could be married on May 17 in the official chief minister’s residence.

The departure of the three – who recanted Wednesday amid rumors of massive payoffs – could potentially have cost the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, its majority in the state assembly, opening the possibility that the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS, could take over as the majority party in the state.

That led to a political crisis, with the Sultan of Terengganu refusing to either dissolve the state body for a new election or allow PAS to take over. Party leaders were left scrambling to contain the damage and woo back the assemblymen who had walked out.

There were rumors that substantial monetary inducements might be in the works.

Before the three recanted, A. Kadir Jasin, a former New Straits Times group chief editor and ally of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, blogged that "This is just the early stages. Politicians can change their mind freely if the price is right, it is often said that trustworthy politicians don't exist any more.”

Although opposition leaders demanded that the assembly be dissolved for a new election, the sultan instead appointed Ahmad Razis Abd Rahman as the new chief minister, who argued that the state assembly shouldn’t be dissolved despite the turmoil.

Firebrand leaders connected with Mahathir called for Najib’s head as leader of UMNO, to be replaced by Deputy Prime Minister and Party Vice President Muhyiddin Yassin. Although Muhyiddin, 66, has said he intends to retire from politics at the end of his current term, he is being pressed to stay on as an interim leader.

Lim Kit Siang, the venerable leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said on his blog that Najib’s inability to crack the whip in Terengganu was a demonstration of his weakness as leader.

“This Terengganu thing certainly signals Najib is severely weakened,” agreed an UMNO operative connected to the Mahathir wing of the party. “It could have given PAS another state to implement Hudud,” the strict Islamic law that includes 7th century punishments including stoning for adultery and the amputation of limbs for theft.

The chief minister was asked to quit because he didn’t perform well in the 2010 election, squandering a 26-6 majority to a 17-15 win in the 32 member assembly, a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst told Asia Sentinel.

“But he asked Najib to allow him to stay on until end May as he had asked lots of people to his daughter’s wedding. Najib refused him any additional time and asked him to quit immediately. So the guy quit and two of his supporters quit with him. Now Umno has 14 seats, PAS 14, Parti Keadilan Rakyat [also an opposition party] one, and three independents. Umno is no longer a majority party and there is a constitutional crisis.”

Najib has already been under fire from the right wing of UMNO that is controlled by Mahathir. The Malay-rights NGO Perkasa, considered to be a Mahathir proxy, is blaming Najib for the Terengganu imbroglio. Other UMNO leaders are also blaming the prime minister for the crisis.

The big concern is that if PAS were to take over, the Islamic party’s leaders might try to implement Hudud, which has become a wildfire issue nationally, because of frustration with rising violent crime rates.

PAS is threatening to introduce a private member’s bill to cover the state of Kelantan, which it controls, in the national parliament when it reconvenes in June.

While a bill by the opposition usually has no chance of passage, ethnic Malays, all of whom are Muslims, are demanding it, to the distress of the country’s 40 percent non-Islamic population and moderate urban ethnic Malays.

Najib dispatched Muhyiddin to the conservative east-coast state to try to calm things down. Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the home affairs minister, was trying to placate the Terengganu assembly, pleading that the party’s interests should outweigh the outrage.

Given the possibility that the flap could actually have caused the loss of another state, with its religious implications and its sizeable oil revenues, Zahid was right. It is a loss that UMNO can’t afford. It remains to be seen how it will play out for Najib, given his own political problems and the fins in the water.