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Malaysia’s Najib Benefits from Fractured Opposition: Analysts

Razlan Rashid
Kuala Lumpur
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Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, pictured at a Ramadan event in Putrajaya on June 25, 2016, could add to his recent political victories by calling for an early election next year.
Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak, pictured at a Ramadan event in Putrajaya on June 25, 2016, could add to his recent political victories by calling for an early election next year.

Updated at 3:22 a.m. ET on 2016-07-02

Buoyed by fresh electoral wins along with ridding his party of rebels and charging vocal critics in court, Prime Minister Najib Razak is unlikely to face a serious challenge amid weak opposition, according to Malaysian political and social analysts.

Following a disastrous 2015 that included fending off calls for his resignation amid corruption allegations over deposits into his private bank accounts of nearly U.S. $700 million in money linked to a state investment fund, Najib’s fortunes have seen an upturn in the past few months.

His winning streak includes May’s elections where the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition extended its decades-long rule over the eastern Malaysian state of Sarawak with a decisive legislative win, followed by June’s Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar constituency by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia. The BN coalition has ruled the country since independence in 1957.

The comfortable wins tightened Najib’s grip on BN founding member United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and kept at bay his most vocal critics – former Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former Kedah state Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir.

On June 24, Najib and UMNO’s supreme council sacked both Muhyiddin and Mukhriz – the son of Najib foe and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Three days later, he reshuffled his cabinet, rewarding loyalists who had defended him against corruption allegations with ministerial posts.

On Wednesday, Najib’s fiercest critic and Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister, Mahathir, was questioned by the police for the fourth time within a year for likening Najib to Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

The next day, another Najib staunch critic – chief minister of the northern state of Penang and secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) Lim Guan Eng was charged with two counts of graft. Lim claims the charges are politically motivated.

Political and social analysts expect Najib to call for an early election in 2017 and remain in power.  The 14th general election is scheduled for 2018, according to the nation’s five-year cycle. Najib chose to keep reporters guessing about what he might do during a press conference on June 27.

“It depends when the next general election will be held. I don’t know yet,” Najib said.

BN remains ‘people’s choice’

Speaking to BenarNews, Political and Social Sciences professor Ahmad Atory Hussain said BN would be the people’s choice and “continue to rule the country as evidence seen in the recent elections.

“But more importantly, the biggest factor is the opposition is disunited,” he said.

Penang Institute political and social sciences chief Wong Chin Huat agreed.

“UMNO’s triumphs should not surprise anyone,” he said.

Universiti Malaysia Sarawak political science assistant professor Jeniri Amir went even farther, suggesting that opposition infighting was strengthening BN.

“If they want to beat BN, they need to be under an umbrella like what BN has been doing for 70 years,” Ahmad Atory told BenarNews.

Instead, the opposition is in disarray as dissidents within the faith-based Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) formed the National Trust Party (PAN) and joined the already existing opposition bloc that included the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). PAS left the bloc in June 2015 and insisted it would remain as a second opposition bloc against BN.

Opposition needs a game changer

Analysts claim that voters are not interested in hearing about scandal-plagued state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, which has featured prominently in the opposition’s anti-Najib platform. The opposition needs game-changing plans to turn around election results, they say.

“In rural areas, the bread-and-butter issue of development holds greater impact,” Jeniri said.

A majority of Malaysians are not politically literate, so the opposition must find other issues to change votes, he added.

Chin Huat pointed out that BN’s recent wins were caused by the “time-tested tactic of patronage politics,” using development projects to garner votes.

Save Malaysia movement must name candidate

In addition, according to analysts, the Save Malaysia movement formed by civil rights groups and individuals to bring down Najib must be more coherent and, more importantly, name a candidate for prime minister.

“It is absurd for them to say Najib must resign, but they don’t care who will be the successor. This is not a vacancy for an office boy. It is the top position for our country,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, told BenarNews.

Wan Saiful said the movement should name either jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, or Selangor state Chief Minister Mentri Besar Mohamed Azmin Ali as a candidate if Muhyiddin does not think he could muster enough support.

While the movement’s main demand has been widely discussed, other important demands such as removing those associated with Najib, abolishing laws and policies that violate human rights and initiating institutional reforms have been forgotten, according to Wan Saiful.

Hata Wahari, Dennis Wong and Haireez Azeem Azizi contributed to this report.

An earlier version of this story contained inaccuracies in paragraph 17 regarding PAS.

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