Updated at 5:45 p.m. ET on 2017-12-27
Corruption-tainted Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak faces elections in 2018, which, many believe, he could survive despite a stiff challenge from the opposition spearheaded by two former government leaders.
Buoyed by rosy projections for economic growth, Najib kept former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and jailed former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at bay in 2017 by mounting legal challenges against them, and he also doled out pre-poll fiscal goodies to voters.
“The prime minister, I think, did a good job in disseminating that the economy is doing well,” geo-political expert Azmi Hassan told BenarNews.
“There have been instances that could be considered as missteps, like dealing with the high cost of living, but I think the government realized its mistakes and rectified them,” he said.
Under Malaysia’s constitution, a general election must take place every five years, and the next one is required before August 2018.
The opposition came close to unseating Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the 2013 election, but has since struggled to put up a united front to challenge the prime minister in the next general election.
Najib will decide a date for the 14th general election, and local reports said he could call polls for as early as the second half of February.
Earlier this month, during the annual assembly of his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, the 64-year-old leader courted the religious sensibilities of its Malay Muslim membership as he effectively kicked off his electoral run with a rousing speech.
“At this father of all elections, we will battle and fight until the end,” Najib told the more than 2,500 party faithful who had gathered in Kuala Lumpur. “Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar! (God is Great! God is Great!).”
That speech, supporters say, could help Najib in a potential electoral battle against Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir, who has joined his bitter foe, Anwar in leading a new opposition coalition, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope).
Mahathir, 92, who served as prime minister from 1991 to 2003, has branded Najib, his one-time protégé, as corrupt, but Mahathir has indicated he does not want to be PM again.
The 70-year-old Anwar, meanwhile, is serving a prison sentence on a sodomy conviction. But, according to his lawyers, Anwar is scheduled to be released in June – another reason for Najib to hold elections much sooner, instead of giving the former deputy minister enough time to unite the opposition during the run-up to elections.
Shadow of 1MDB
Yet in 2017, Najib again was unable to shake off allegations of corruption linked to a multi-billion dollar scandal over a state sovereign wealth fund that he founded, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), and which will likely overshadow him on the campaign trail in 2018.
Najib has consistently denied taking money from 1MDB. He has been implicated in the scandal because almost $700 million of money linked to 1MDB was deposited into his private bank accounts in 2013, but he has said the money was donated by the Saudi royal family and not used for his personal gain.
This year, federal investigators in the U.S. expanded lawsuits against businessmen associated with Najib, alleging they were involved in stealing and laundering $4.5 billion from the fund. The U.S. court documents repeatedly refer to Najib as “Malaysian Official 1.”
The 1MDB affair has beleaguered Najib since July 2015 and led to calls for his resignation, but the issue did not come up during his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington in September, according to the White House.
Mahathir and Anwar have been Najib’s fiercest critics, leading calls for the prime minister to resign over 1MDB.
According to analysts, Mahathir has become an even bigger thorn for Najib.
Mahathir led UMNO to five election wins and, according to political observers, Malaysians still adore him despite Najib’s efforts to vilify him.
“Mahathir has a lot of followers and supporters who appreciate him the most,’ Muhammad Khairy, a government worker, said. “They know what he has done for the country for 22 years, we all can clearly see that.”
Mahathir’s leading the opposition coalition might just be enough for Malaysians to vote for a change in government, his counsel, Haniff Khatri, told BenarNews.
“Of course, Mahathir’s presence in leading the charge for the opposition is the most-crucial factor in getting the Malaysian public to vote for a change of government,” he said.
But a legal move recently mounted by Najib’s government could complicate things for the opposition in 2018.
In November, a government-appointed panel, the Royal Commission of Inquiry, recommended that Mahathir and Anwar be criminally investigated, along with other former government officials, in connection with billions of dollars in central bank losses during the 1990s, when Mahathir was in power and Anwar served as his deputy.
Showing solidarity with Palestinians, Rohingya
In rallying support for an electoral run from his party’s Muslim Malay base, Najib lately has been vocal on international issues that play on religious sentiment. In recent weeks and months, he has led rallies to show solidarity for Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims, as well as the Palestinians in the wake of the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Pandering to such sentiment is crucial for attracting voters in the majority-Muslim nation, analysts say.
“Najib has demonstrated that he is willing to go against the grain if the Jerusalem and Rohingya issues are taken into account,” analyst Azmi Hassan told BenarNews. “This style of leadership is highly appreciated by the people.”
Last Friday, Najib told a rally that although President Trump received him warmly at the White House, he would not compromise on the sanctity of Islam.
“The United States may be a superpower, but do not look down on Malaysia. We have our pride and dignity, too, we have not asked for loans from the United States,” Najib said.
‘Taking care’ of voters
Apart from rallying voters on issues with religious undertones, Najib’s strategy of “taking care” of rural voters, including in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, could propel him to electoral victory, according to Malaysian businessman Ab Wahab Ali.
Analysts agree that amid the vitriol-fueled criticisms from Najib’s opponents, reports from World Bank estimating that the Malaysian economy is likely to expand 5.8 percent this year and 5.2 percent next year could sway sentiments in favour of the ruling party.
Muhammad Khairy, the government worker, expects Najib to call an election in March or April – after the Chinese Lunar New Year and before the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in mid-May.
He believes this will happen after the government hands out payments from Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia (BR1M), a program created by Najib that hands out cash payments of 1,200 ringgit (U.S. $294) nationwide as part of his administration’s effort to ease the burden of the lower-income Malaysians.
“My prediction for the 14th general election is on March and by that time BRIM payments have been made,” Muhammad Khairy told BenarNews.
“This would win the heart of suburbs.”
Hata Wahari contributed to this report.
Corrrection: Anwar Ibrahim did not serve as deputy prime minister under Najib Razak.