UMNO’s Audacious Get-Out-of-Jail Gambit

‘We can keep ruling coalition in power for favors,’ corrupt party hints

The July 30 announcement by the United Malays National Organization that it would remain outside Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional alliance while continuing to support the alliance amounts to little more than a blackmail attempt to keep a half-dozen of its leaders out of jail, political sources in Kuala Lumpur say.

At stake is the continued freedom of UMNO officials and allies accused of corruption following the 2018 general election, which was won by the Pakatan Harapan coalition that has since been dumped from power by Muhyiddin’s alliance. One of them is former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now free on appeal from 12 years in prison stemming from his conviction on seven charges of varying degrees of corruption stemming from the collapse of the 1MDB investment fund.

UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who himself faces at least 87 charges of criminal breach of trust, money laundering and abuse of power, said UMNO would work to strengthen its alliance with Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural Islamist party whose head, Abdul Hadi Awang, has been credibly accused of taking RM90 million (US$21.09 million) in bribes from Najib in an effort to wreck the increasingly popular Pakatan Rakyat’s 2018 election chances by taking his party out of the at coalition prior to the polls.

UMNO isn’t leaving the Perikatan coalition to go it alone with PAS. The two parties, although they have remained in a loose alliance with Muhyiddin, never officially joined Perikatan. What Zahid is saying is in effect that while they will continue to support Muhyiddin as prime minister, they could pull out at any time, causing the government, which holds a shaky 113-111majority in parliament, to collapse.

The 67-year-old Najib faces at least two more corruption trials connected to 1MDB. He has also been unofficially accused of complicity in the 2006 murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian national who was killed by two of Najib’s bodyguards. One of them, Azilah Hadri, earlier this year signed a sworn declaration saying Najib had ordered him and his partner, Sirul Azhar Umar, to kill the woman, allegedly because she was blackmailing Najib and others.

Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor faces three counts of corruption in complicity with her husband’s actions. Many in Kuala Lumpur are betting that neither will ever see the inside of a jail cell. Whatever the UMNO-PAS coalition is up to, Malaysia’s creaky appeal system will keep the two out of jail for years.

Others in the dock are Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, the former UMNO secretary-general, who faces charges of taking RM2 million in bribes connected with keeping Najib in power along with supreme council member Ahmad Maslan, Mohd Isa Ahmad Samad and Shahrir Abdul Samad, and Abdul Azeez Abdul Raman, the former chairman of Tabung Haji., the Muslim pilgrim’s fund.

The Attorney General has already freed Musa Aman, the former Sabah secretary-general, and Najib’s son-in-law, Reza Aziz, without having to face trial. Musa remains a political powerhouse in the eastern Malaysian state at a time when elections, given the right political machine, could deliver Sabah back into the UMNO fold. Sabah UMNO chairman Bung Moktar Radin, another political powerhouse in East Malaysia, is on trial for accepting millions in bribes as well.

“I read it as a shot across the bows after the Najib conviction,” said a Kuala Lumpur political analyst “Don’t forget there are five or six other Umno leaders in court over corruption, money laundering, etc. and other charges. They are telling Muhyiddin that they can cause his government to collapse at any time. Basically, they are blackmailing him to somehow get the charges against their leaders dropped or eased. That’s how I read it.”

Muhyiddin is under pressure to call snap elections sometime later this year attempt to solidify his position in power. The country has done a creditable job controlling the Covid-19 pandemic, with fewer than 9,000 cases and 125 dead. But recent days have seen a rash of new cases, with the government faced with the unappetizing task of having to shut down the economy at a time when loan moratoriums are about to lapse and unemployment is beginning to spike upward sharply.

The economy is expected to contract by 3.1 percent in 2020 as efforts continue to flatten the coronavirus curve. The macro picture, with Malaysia heavily dependent on exports, is darkening, constraining economic activity.

UMNO leaders are said to be split on whether to continue to support Najib, whose enormous wealth gained through decades of corruption including perhaps US$1 billion stolen from 1MDB,  gives him the clout to remain a kingmaker although his conviction renders him unable to stay in parliament beyond his current term. Some party stalwarts including Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, are said to be asking for a cleaning of the stables and a new start, widening the party’s appeal beyond the ethnic Malay base.

In the meantime, the Pakatan Harapan coalition made up of longtime opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Amanah, a moderate Islamist party that split away from PAS prior to the 2018 election, continues to squabble over who will lead it.

Nor is Muhyiddin’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu much better off. Some KL political clairvoyants believe the party, started by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad just prior to the 2018 election mostly with the intention of bringing down Najib, has reached its apex with just 31 members of parliament trying to wag the 113-member alliance.

“I think in the coming election, it’s going to be all bets off. Bersatu is a sinking ship,” said one analyst. “I am being told Muhyiddin is welcome to jump back across to UMNO.”

Another said the coalition is likely to be gone by the end of the year. What happens then – which way the political situation will splinter – is a mystery.

“Both Bersatu and UMNO, which is divided, are not certain what they must do next, with UMNO maneuvering to emerge as the dominant power while the former is struggling to retain its political eminence as exemplified by the current composition of the cabinet,” said another longtime observer. “Whatever the outcome, the present discreet tussle between the two parties would be most significant in shaping the political map ahead.”

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