Najib's Peace Overtures

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, beset on his right flank by an implacable former Premier Mahathir Mohamad critical of his performance in the May 5 general election, has been making quiet overtures to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to explore the outlines of a unity government.

The overtures, made through former Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, are a long, long shot at best. However, they have included three visits by Kalla to Kuala Lumpur, the latest in mid-July. Kalla earlier this year acted as an intermediary between Anwar and Najib at Anwar's initiative to seek to broker a commitment for a peaceful result in the May 5 general election.

Kalla, now a businessman and head of the Indonesian Red Cross Society, has emerged as a major Southeast Asian peacemaker, brokering peace agreements in various conflicts across Indonesia during his time as vice-president from 2004 to 2009; he also played a role in attempts to settle conflicts in Thailand and Sri Lanka.

While the pre-electoral contacts were made public in mid-May, with Kalla accusing Anwar of breaking the written agreement to accept the outcome of the election, the contacts have continued, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur.

Anwar confirmed the new contacts, saying they had been initiated by Najib, who emerged from the election severely weakened within the United Malays National Organization, the country's largest ethnic political party, which he heads. The overtures were made via Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the Home Minister in Najib's cabinet, a source told Asia Sentinel. Ahmad and Anwar were friends before Mahathir fired Anwar as finance minister and had him arrested and jailed in 1999.

It is unsure if the contacts will go anywhere. They would require the three components of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat all to sign off. The idea of reaching out to the opposition, particularly Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat, is likely to drive Mahathir into a fury and energize whatever followers the septuagenarian former leader still has in UMNO.

Anwar, in an interview, said he had sent word through intermediaries that the incendiary racist attacks by the UMNO-owned broadsheet Utusan Malaysia on the Chinese and Indian communities would have to stop, and that the racial temperature in the country would have to cool before any progress could be made.

"I said the fundamental issues must be addressed, ending the racial stuff, there has to be a clear understanding and commitment to reform and change," Anwar said. "I made it clear that discussions must deal with this first and that the racial rhetoric must not escalate. The UMNO president has always had a direct say in running Utusan."

He said so far no answer has been forthcoming.

Presumably the Najib gambit opens another front against Mahathir, who has been allowing surrogate bloggers to attack the wounded prime minister ever since the election, in addition to delivering his own blistering attacks on Malaysia's ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of the population, making allegations that they are trying to take over the country politically as well as economically.

The Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition, lost the popular vote in the May election for the first time since 1969, with Anwar's three-party Pakatan Rakyat coalition winning 50.87 percent of the vote against 47.38 for the Barisan, which nonetheless preserved its majority in the parliament, winning 133 seats to 89 for the opposition, largely the result of pro-Barisan gerrymandering.

Since the election, Mahathir and former Finance Minister Daim Zainuddin have kept up an unrelenting barrage of criticism against Najib, saying he had miscalculated by reaching out to minority communities instead of playing to his ethnic Malay base.

Najib himself has gone silent, to the consternation of not just his allies within UMNO, but of people in the broader community. Ambiga Sreenevesan, the former head of the Bar Council and leader of Bersih, an electoral reform NGO, said the country needs the prime minister to speak out on the rising number of contract murders and the strident racial rhetoric being practiced by Malay nationalists. Najib is on a six-day holiday in Phuket.

Najib's next test is the UMNO annual general assembly, scheduled for later this year. For the first time, as a result of reforms instituted by Najib, all 160,000 UMNO delegates are to vote on the party's leaders instead of the 2,500 leaders of the 191 divisions. The widened electoral contest is likely to be less controllable than the previous brokered assembly.

Although no real rival has emerged against Najib, he appears to be in the same position as his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who in the 2008 election lost the two-thirds majority the Barisan had held since independence in 1958. Although Abdullah Badawi was his anointed choice as prime minister, Mahathir, who ruled the country for 22 years, later played a major role in driving him from power.

Najib's main potential rival is Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, an ally of Mahathir's, who has repeatedly denied any intention of taking on Najib in the UMNO election.

Sources close to the Mahathir wing of the party say instead that Najib is likely to stay on as a lame duck premier.

"Can Najib take charge?" asked one of the sources. "The elections didn't go well for him personally. He lost the popular vote and lost the respect of UMNO members. UMNO is now in charge. Everybody is telling Najib to go fly a kite. He ran a US Presidential style campaign, attempting to appeal to all the people, and he lost. It hit him right in the gonads."

Interestingly, a new factor has emerged, with a new book of articles about Abdullah Badawi, in which the former prime minister himself answered back in an interview at the seven years of criticism on the part of Mahathir over his tenure.

Mahathir, he said, had thwarted all attempts at reform and turned on him when he sought to cut back on the grandiose projects Mahathir had put in place before they nearly bankrupted the nation.

So far, Mahathir hasn't answered Abdullah Badawi's charges, although he has said he intends to do so. The army of bloggers allied with Mahathir has, however, pointing to Abdullah Badawi's failings as premier.

The book and the reaction have also opened a new flood of sympathy for Abdullah Badawi, with large numbers of UMNO cadres offering to visit him in retirement. He retains the affections of perhaps 10 percent of the cadres, according to one estimate -- not much, but enough to become a factor in opposition to the Mahathir wing. The UMNO assembly should be an interesting affair.