Mixing the Cards Anew in Malaysia’s Power Game?

Partyforumseasia: Malaysia’s political landscape has seen enough dramatic maneuvers but the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has withstood the storms so far with the First-Past-The-Post election system and heavy gerrymandering in the narrowly won federal election in 2013, but also with the help of a widespread and costly patronage system. Prime Minister and UMNO President Najib Razak is under growing pressure with the 1MDB financial scandal after nearly 700 najib-under-pressuremillion US$ were found in his personal accounts. Few Malaysians are convinced that this money was a donation of the Saudi royal family when at the same time billions of Ringgit are missing in the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund. The dubious money flows are being investigated by several countries while the domestic clearance by a hand picked Attorney General are far from whitewashing the Prime Minister in the public perception. All the missing millions, and billions in the local currency, might signal emerging problems to maintain the patronage system. Many citizens see it anyway as appalling political corruption.

With the incarceration of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, once again on alleged sodomy grounds, UMNO and its dependent coalition parties looked like having achieved their  dream of splitting and emasculating the opposition. But they have also created a number of internal and external enemies. Among the sacked, resigned or retired UMNO members who are concerned about the future of party and country, one enemy is standing out: Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister from 1981 to 2003 and 91 years old, is probably the keenist and most influential political figure in the country to bring down the Prime Minister. Many accuse him of abuse of power and growing money politics during his own term, but many voters may now support his fight against Najib.

The new player: Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM)

Mahathir’s latest  maneuver is the formation of a new Malay-based party which has been registered in principle by the Registry of Societies (RoS) on September 8. Cleverly avoiding a popular uproar by denying them the registration, the RoS is not really facilitating the start of the new party.  It ruled that it cannot use the word Bersatu (United) in its name because there were already six parties or organizations with this name, ironically the ruling party UMNO or Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu in Malay… Full registration will only be possible when a changed name is acceptable.
The racial orientation of the new party has been criticized, but strategy-wise it is correct. UMNO as entrenched as it is in the rural Malay constituencies can only be defeated there. The Chinese and Indian minority parties will take care of the urban voters anyway.
Another shrewd maneuver is a surprise meeting between Mahathir and his former deputy and later victim Anwar Ibrahim. handshakeThe two have not met since Anwar’s sacking in 1998, but many believe that at least a strategic reconciliation and tactical alliance between the two is possible. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is a viable and common pattern in politics. Since the fall of PM Najib may trigger Anwar’s release from prison and his return into the political arena, the personal bitterness should be overcome. Anwar’s smile, handshake and their 45 minute tête-à-tête  discussion seem to signal that.

The noose around the Prime Minister’s neck looks like tightening with these domestic developments and the international financial investigations, but Najib and his faithful cronies will certainly fight on. As Partyforumseasia has argued before, they cannot concede defeat because a collapse of the patronage system would be more than a disaster for too many people involved.
PS (16.9.):
The Straits Times, Singapore,
reports that the boundaries of voting districts have been changed, which may indicate that PM Najib will call early elections before a new opposition coalition can regain strength: “The changes, so far, lend credence to the suspicion that the redistricting exercise will likely be at the opposition’s disadvantage,” said Merdeka Centre director Ibrahim Suffian. Most changes, he said, are to the states of Perak and Selangor – home to a large number of opposition lawmakers – where “significant changes make previously safe opposition seats become marginal”. LINK

For details on UMNO’s patronage system see:
Edmund Terence Gomez, Resisting the Fall: The Single Dominant Party, Policies and Elections in Malaysia, in: Journal of Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 46, 2016, issue 4, pp. 570-590.


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