Malaysia's Najib Weakens

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak appears to be under increasing pressure from inside his own party and under blistering attack by bloggers allied with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad -- one of whom compared him to a flattened bug on a windshield.

Najib saw his ruling coalition lose the popular vote in May national elections, garnering only 47.38 percent of the vote against 50.87 for the three-party opposition Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim. The Barisan, however, managed to maintain its 56-year hold on parliament by a 133-89 seat margin because of gerrymandering.

Since the election, Najib has faced a drumfire of criticism from within the United Malays National Organization over his strategy to attempt to reach out against the country's minority Chinese and Indian races. Because UMNO raised the number of seats it won while its component Indian and Chinese parties went down the tubes, the party more and more appears to be in the hands of Mahathir and his allies, particularly former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin, who advocated a strident Malay nationalism strategy to lure ethnic Malays, who make up 60.1 percent of the population, to the polls.

A quiet approach to Anwar to seek to set up a unity government after the election was batted back by the opposition leader, ostensibly because Najib wouldn't rein in the strident racists in his party, but probably actually because Anwar wasn't really interested in playing no. 2 to Naib in any political scenario.

Publication of Najib's vain attempt to reach across the aisle to the opposition is considered to have weakened the prime minister further, partly because of Mahathir's implacable enmity against Anwar. And while the 88-year-old Mahathir has remained silent, Mahathir-aligned blogs, including "outsyed the box" and one maintained by former information Minister Zainuddin Maidin have stepped up their attacks on Najib in recent days.

Outsyed the box, maintained by Syed Akbar Ali, described as "Dr M's chief spin doctor," recently posted that "Najib Tun Razak's popularity is about as flat as a bug stuck on your windscreen at 160 km/h. The PM is going down. Rats, prepare to jump ship." To make his point, he used this picture.

Others have asked Najib to step down before he is thrown out. The first possibility for that is later this year at the UMNO annual general meeting, where for the first time all 160,000 delegates will vote on the UMNO presidency -- who becomes prime minister -- rather than selecting the winning candidate through proportional representation.

However, as has been reported repeatedly, "Najib is expected to survive," said a western academic with extensive sources inside UMNO. He described Najib as a "lame-duck PM and the influence ranking in Malaysia today is the old man (Mahathir) as no. 1, (Najib's wife Rosmah Mansor) as No. 2, and Najib as their lackey," he said "In fact many UMNO affairs are being handled by the first two these days and Najib is likely to have a hostile supreme council in control of the old man. Najib is likely to survive because he will do their beck and call."

That jibe about Rosmah is likely wide of the mark. She is considered to have lost considerable influence as well. However, Najib is expected to stay prime minister at least partly because at this juncture nobody is interested in the job, or ready politically to take it on.

"Najib Is weaker by the day," said an Umno source. "Tun (Mahathir) is in charge. Najib will remain President. Weak. Tun remains the power broker."

Several sources say Mahathir will attempt to install his son, Mukhriz, as deputy UMNO president and deputy prime minister, although Muhyiddin Yassin, a Mahathir ally, now has that job and in the past was considered ambitious enough to take on Najib if he stumbled, which he clearly has. But the 66-year-old Muhyiddin has made definitive statements that he isn't interested in the job, at least for now.

"Muhyiddin will likely retire as deputy. Mukhriz rises," an UMNO source said.

Certainly since he became chief minister of the northern state of Kedah, once the power base of his father, the 48-year old Mukhriz has been a whirlwind of activity.

"Mukhriz in Kedah has adopted the transformational approach to government and is moving at one hundred miles per hour," said a northern Malaysia-based academic. "No one will ever be able to challenge him in Kedah for a long time. He is focusing on attracting foreign investment and doing well. Ironically look at both Penang and Kedah, both states look to prosper."

One of the tests to watch for is the possible sale of MAS, the government-owned flag carrier, which has been plagued with deficits for decades, and which was sold at least once to a Mahathir crony who looted it of hundreds of millions of dollars and then sold it back to the government.

Mahathir recently told reporters the airline should be privatized again because of the cost of running it. Najib however, said the losses are diminishing and that the government should hang onto it.

That has spurred a Malay nationalist group, Jerangan Melayu Malaysia, to attack the current MAS chairman and CEO and to call for the appointment of Abdul Aziz Zainal, the former defense forces chief to head the airline.

The popular thinking in Kuala Lumpur is that Mahathir will push to hand the airline over to Syed Mochtar, one of the country's most prominent tycoons, who was handed control of the port in Penang, the Proton national car and a flock of other privatized entities.

Najib's brother Nazir, managing director of the CIMB banking group and others including the head of Kazanah Nasional Bhd, the government's sovereign wealth fund which controls the airline, are reportedly upset at the attacks and have appealed to Najib to stop them.

If the sale of the airline is announced over the next few weeks or months, it will be a demonstration of Mahathir's power against Najib's. Watch this space.