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Najib Razak: Malaysian PM has diminishing room to manoeuvre

Najib Razak: Malaysian PM has diminishing room to manoeuvre
Published 14 Mar 2016 

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's scandal-linked tenure has continued unabated but now his foes from various sides of the political divide have coalesced to pressure him to resign. This latest unified effort to unseat him could push him over the edge. 

International media last year pronounced Najib 'a dead man walking' after he admitted to an allegation — of having more than $700 million in his private account — made by the Wall Street Journal. Yet he has remained in power, due largely to the sheer coercive powers and vast resources of the Malaysian institutions that he controls as both prime minister of Malaysia, and president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

Najib was never the most popular within the party. He rose to the top of the UMNO over many colleagues by patiently waiting, and betting on the right horses at the right time. He made more than a few enemies along the way. As soon as he was named deputy prime minister in 2004, his opponents sought to bring him down. That he lasted as deputy (2004-2009), and now as prime minister (April 2009-present), under the most trying circumstances reflects a determination and instinct his rivals did not anticipate. 

Such is Najib's strength that sworn rivals have banded together. Tun Mahathir Mohamed, an autocrat himself, has managed to garner the support of prominent Malaysian leaders' from the opposition as well as civil society. Together they have launched the Citizens Declaration in their quest to 'Save Malaysia'.

Splits among UMNO's ruling elites are nothing new. The party has experienced at least five leadership challenges since it began in 1946. Almost always, the ousted leaders would form a new political party and/or collaborate with the opposition during elections. UMNO always prevails. Those who challenge and fail have generally been absorbed back into the fold (after having sufficiently repented and/or been penalised). The few who have remained outside UMNO have generally faded into oblivion.

There have only been two exceptions; the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) and the Peoples Justice Party (PKR). Both have grown in strength, despite several near death experiences. These two parties have also taken their toll on UMNO. At the 2008 and 2013 general elections the PAS and PKR, together with the Democratic Action Party (DAP) damaged UMNO. At the 2008 election, the two-third majority that Barisan Nasional (BN) held was wiped away. In 2013, the majority of Malaysians voted for the opposition coalition. This coalition, Pakatan Rakyat — although now in disarray — demonstrated that UMNO was no longer invincible.

UMNO's foundational myth and ideology as the protector of the Malays, and guarantor of the 'social contract' (the ethnic bargain) is now increasingly being challenged, not only by opposition parties, but by UMNO stalwarts themselves. [fold]

UMNO's performance as reflected by the Najib administration, while mediocre (but not terrible by global comparison) has been criticised by Malaysians suffering from long-term institutional degradation, an out-dated economic model, and a political system unsuited for the contemporary challenges their country faces.

Against this background, those behind the Citizens Declaration represent a serious challenge to Najib.

From progressive to autocrat

In his first term, Najib tried to portray himself as the progressive Muslim. 1Malaysia, the New Economic Model, the Government Transformation Program, and the Economic Transformation Program were the signature policies that Najib hoped would drive Malaysia towards Vision 2020, as a developed nation with liberal values.

Since the 2013 election, however, when the majority of Malaysians chose Anwar Ibrahim's coalition over his, Najib has been morphing into an autocrat, controlling the nation in the name of Islam. With his liberal reform measures no longer credible, he is playing the tried and tested race-and-religion card to bolster support.

Since independence, Malays and Islam have enjoyed a privileged position in Malaysia. The competition between PAS and UMNO, and global developments, have embedded an intolerant variant of Islam. not just among the clerical class but across Malaysia's Muslim population. Najib has courted this group and invested heavily in them. He has also placed a very big bet on the House of Sauds inadvertently tying the future of Malaysia to Saudi Arabia. These groups are unlikely to let him go even if he wishes to change course in the future.

One advantage that Najib has over his rivals is the support of Western powers. The leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore all have a vested interest in seeing him continue as PM (although Australia's patience is being tested with the arrest of a news crew over the weekend).

Moreover, Najib knows that his future (and that of his family) would be bleak if he were to be removed. It's hard to see how a pardon could be part of any exit strategy, given the nature of the allegations made against him, and the investment those who oppose him have made in prosecuting those allegations.

He can only play to win. 

Photo courtesy of APEC

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