1MDB court case: Shaping a Malay leadership battle

All eyes are on Malaysia awaiting the decision of former prime minister’s first 1MDB trial tomorrow. The focus is on whether former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak will be held accountable for the world’s largest kleptocracy scandal. This decision has important implications for accountability, corruption and abuses of power the world over. Most ordinary Malaysians are hoping justice will be served.

For those in Malaysia’s longest-governing party Umno, however, attention centres on whether the hold Najib has over the party since he became prime minister in 2009 will continue. At stake is not only the party leadership, but the political trajectory for the country’s leadership.

In 2016, with my academic colleagues John Funston, Clive Kessler and James Chin, I wrote a book entitled ‘The End of Umno?’ laying out a series of arguments on the decline of the party. The book was updated in an expanded version in 2018 after GE14. The arguments in the book vary, but two central themes emerged – that the old Umno that led the multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional coalition was over and that the party’s leadership – Dr Mahathir Mohamad and subsequently Najib – had undercut the party’s political fortunes.

Tomorrow’s decision will shape whether Najib’s control over Umno will continue, it will determine who will lead in the Malay leadership battle. If he walks out of court a free man, given his resource advantages (which were built through the 1MDB scandal), Najib will be in a position to potentially return not only to the party’s leadership helm, but to office in Putrajaya.

Najib – not opposition leaders Mahathir or Anwar Ibrahim – is currently Muhyiddin’s most serious political competitor for national leadership. If Najib is convicted, he will begin an appeal process that will likely put him out of contention for the next general elections and weaken his hold on Umno, having to rely on proxies for power.

Najib’s Umno

After Mahathir, Najib has been the most powerful leader of Umno, arguably more powerful than his father, Abdul Razak Hussein. Najib’s dominance of Umno is the product of three things: First, Najib successfully placed his loyalists in most of the key party positions, especially among the divisional chiefs. He orchestrated a generational shift in the party, and created a new crop of beneficiaries/cronies, dislodging many traditional Umno state warlords.

While other Umno leaders have done this, including Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Najib has done so more sweepingly and maintained loyalty through a more well-oiled financial machinery. While resources have been seriously strapped/starved (as accounts were frozen) post-GE14, Najib has maintained himself as the ‘king of cash.’ Money remains the main source of power in Umno.

Equally important, Najib has successfully tied his political fortunes to that of the party. Mahathir did this during his first 22-year tenure, navigating through two party crises in 1987-88 and 1998-99. Mahathir successfully played elites off each other to remain on top. He left a divided party and declines in party popularity in the wake of these crises.

Najib, in contrast, successfully ousted the opponents (including Muhyiddin) within Umno from the party in 2016, and while the party’s popularity dropped with the 1MDB scandal (leading to the GE14 loss of government), he has been more successful than Mahathir in tying his personal political fortunes to that of Umno. He has become the party’s mascot; an acquittal of Najib is being portrayed as an endorsement for the party; Najib’s comeback is being tied to the party’s comeback.

Finally, Najib has been credited with forming the political alliances that have reversed the party’s fortunes, first with PAS from effectively 2015 and subsequently with Bersatu through Najib intermediaries. Within two years after GE14, Umno has returned to power by adopting polarising ethno-religious rhetoric and strategic (convenient) partnerships.

The GE14 failures of three-cornered contest strategy with PAS has been conveniently forgotten as attention centres on another weak strategy of seat allocation with PAS (and potentially Bersatu). The fact that these strategies reduce Umno seats (especially in favour of their long-time rival PAS) has been downplayed as the focus has been on positioning Umno vis-a-vie their main threat Mahathir (not Anwar). Keep in mind, Mahathir’s challenge is not just about levels of political support but his challenge to the sources of financial wealth for Najib party loyalists.

A divided party

Najib’s leadership has come at a price, a fragmented, weakened and divided party. Umno – like political parties everywhere – has deep factionalism. The divisions have been primarily personalised and monetised. Traditionally, the party has also grappled with accommodating generational pressures, and those that have empowered new youngers leaders have strengthened themselves (at least temporarily until the competition and infighting intensifies).

In rare moments, party differences have also been about party identity and reform – what Umno should stand for, and how it should engage itself and the electorate. The party election after GE14, which ended up with Najib-aligned Ahmad Zahid Hamidi winning only 42.2% of the delegate votes (the remainder of the votes were split among his two competitors, Khairy Jamaluddin and Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah) was one of those moments. It was an election not as driven by money and an attempt to break out of the Najib straightjacket.

While there are different groups and contenders in today’s Umno, the main source of factionalism in Umno has been about Najib himself. This has been the case since 2015 when Muhyiddin (with Mahathir and Shafie Apdal) split with Najib over 1MDB. This continues to be the case now, with the main faction against Najib led by Umno deputy president Mohamad (Mat) Hasan, and often publicly expressed by the more independent Tengku Razaleigh.

These alternative views not only call for reducing the party’s dependence on money politics, but to move back to the ‘old’ Umno of greater multi-ethnic inclusion and less polarising politics. There is also less agreement with Najib’s ‘strategic alliance’ policy, especially with PAS. Importantly, they see Najib as a liability for the party’s future, and for the strengthening of the party over the longer term.

These more reformist views have lost traction within Umno post-GE14 as the months without access to resources has favoured those who give them access to funds, namely Najib and his political strategists. We have seen by joining Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN), the party is willing to work with anyone if it will get itself access to power/income.

If there is anything that unites the factions is that they want to be back in control, they want to return to being the dominant party. They see holding a national election as the main means to get there. Najib has used this shared desire to be back in power to his advantage, to position himself as the strongest faction in the party, to build the (false) narrative that his success is the party’s success.

One key issue is whether Najib is (yet again) overestimating his power, with hubris blinding him to the possibility that his strength in Umno is more temporal than substantive, and that what appears on the surface may in fact not be the level of support he actually has.

A 1MDB reckoning

In the five months since PN has been in power, a day rarely goes by without someone in Umno calling for dissolution and national elections. Umno recognises the longer that Muhyiddin is in office the more the challenge he and his Bersatu is for Umno.

Bersatu remains weak as the new party on the block. It is divided, still reeling from the split with Mahathir in its ranks. Bersatu also lacks the institutional base of Umno which has revived in recent months and is already gearing up for polls (both national and the party polls which are to be held next year). It is no wonder Umno wants an early election.

Despite Bersatu’s weaknesses, Muhyiddin nevertheless poses the most serious challenge to Najib’s leadership and is more popular in the Malay community than Najib is, despite the former prime minister’s Umno mascot branding.

Muhyiddin’s political popularity rests on four things: 1) his control of the prime minister’s position, 2) his role in ‘protecting’ the Malays/Malay institutions; 3) his performance with Covid-19 and the economy, and 4) his stance vis-a-vie Najib on 1MDB. No question that a decision that favours Najib on 1MDB will hurt Muhyiddin’s popular public standing – it will define his leadership as dependent on Najib’s support.

Over the last few months, Muhyiddin and his administration have been seen to have sold out to political pressures. His razor-thin majority in Parliament has made him beholden to Umno (and other parties), and to his former boss. In looking at leadership, some believe Muhyiddin prioritises political survival over principles. They see Najib as having more power over a weakened rival Muhyiddin for leadership among the Malay community.

Another view is that it is Muhyiddin who has the power to determine Najib’s future. He can set when elections are called. As prime minister, Muhyiddin can form new allies from within Umno, Mahathirites and other parties. He has more levers of power from holding the position as prime minister.

Malay political battle

Tomorrow, we will see how the court’s decision will shape this Malay political battle. Despite weaknesses and limited space to operate, recent history has tipped in favour of Muhyiddin – so far.

Malaysian political history has shown that when there is division among Malay political elites, a battle for Malay leadership, there is greater use of repression. The last few months of uncertainty have witnessed the signs of this trend, as insecurity has led to overreactions to criticism, attacks on human rights activists and the use of xenophobia against migrants to stir up nationalist sentiments. These steps have fed political polarisation and reflected weakness, not strength.

Tomorrow’s decision will showcase who has gained the upper hand in the fight for Malay(sian) leadership. Along with sending a signal to the world about the rule of law on 1MDB, tomorrow’s court decision will shape Malaysia’s leadership trajectory and the direction of two of Malaysia’s political parties – Umno and Bersatu.

Taken from malaysiakini.com