An UMNO candidate won a by-election in rural Perak state by a landslide over the weekend, in the first Malaysian election since ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak was convicted in late July for corruption, demonstrating the party’s ongoing appeal despite corruption scandals tainting its top leaders.
In Saturday’s State Assembly polls in the Slim River constituency, the United Malays National Organization crushed Pejuang, the new party led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, which was contesting its first election since he launched it in early August.
Najib campaigned for UMNO candidate Mohd Zaidi Aziz, after being released on bail pending an appeal of his conviction, and was on stage to help celebrate Aziz’s victory, alongside party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.
“[B]arisan Nasional is still relevant and is greatly missed by the people,” said Zahid, who is standing trial for 47 corruption charges, as he congratulated Aziz.
“This is also sending a message to Tun Dr. Mahathir that the party formed by him is not relevant,” Zahid said.
Mahathir, 95, who had also travelled to Perak to campaign for the candidate endorsed by his party, did not issue any direct comment on the results.
“We succeeded massively in using the Slim by-election as a stage to promote and introduce Pejuang to all of Malaysia. Thus, the real struggle begins today. Don’t give up!” the party claimed on Sunday via Twitter.
Aziz, the UMNO candidate, got more than five times as many votes as the second-place finisher, Amir Khusyairi Mohamad Tanusi, the Pejuang hopeful who was listed on the ballot as an independent due to a technicality.
Saturday’s by-election was called following the death of State Assemblyman Mohd Khusairi Abdul Talib, an UMNO politician, on July 15.
A string of wins
Two years ago, Mahathir, now 95, led the new Pakatan Harapan coalition in ousting Najib and UMNO at the polls through a platform of ridding government of deep-seated corruption.
On July 28, a Kuala Lumpur court sentenced Najib to 12 years in prison after convicting him of seven charges – including abuse of power, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering – in the looting of billions of dollars from 1MDB, a Malaysian state investment fund.
But Saturday’s big win for UMNO was its fifth consecutive by-electoral victory at the state or national level, and its seventh overall in a dozen by-elections held since the May 2018 general election.
Mahathir resigned as prime minister as his government collapsed amid infighting in February. A non-elected government then took power after Malaysia’s king appointed Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, and Pakatan Harapan became the opposition bloc.
Mohammad Siddiq Mohd Azani, who is with the Revolutionary Movement of Malaysian Youths (G3RAM), a local NGO, said the results of Saturday’s polls in Slim River signaled a rejection by voters of Mahathir.
“The Malays are tired of being fed with tales of thieves and bandits repeatedly, when the alleged thieves and bandits are already sweating in court, waiting to be thrown in jail,” he told BenarNews.
Meanwhile Muhiddyin, who heads the Bersatu party, traveled on the weekend to Sabah, the Malaysian Borneo state set to hold State Assembly elections next month.
The upcoming election there was triggered when three assemblymen pulled their support for Chief Minister Shafie Apdal, causing the Sabah politician aligned with the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc to lose a majority.
According to the Straits Times, the prime minister was expected to formally launch his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition over the weekend, but had to postpone the plan after some Sabah-based parties and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), an UMNO ally, declined to join the bloc.
Last week, in a move analysts said was key to his political survival, Muhyiddin formally aligned his party with Muafakat Nasional, an alliance between UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Given that Muhyddin may call early elections, Mahathir’s new party is potentially in a weak position because it will need time to build up its credibility among voters, according to James Chin, a political analyst with the University of Tasmania.
“When Bersatu was formed it took them three years to build the party before the  election. If Muhyiddin calls for elections earlier, Pejuang might not be ready,” Chin told BenarNews.