Anwar Ibrahim: After 11 Years in Prison on the Way to the Top Job Once Again


After winning the by-election

Partyforumseasia:  Few politicians have gone through more suffering and humiliation than Anwar Ibrahim. After convincingly winning a by-election in Port Dickson on Saturday, 13 October, Anwar is on the way to Malaysia’s premiership he was so close to already 20 years ago. In 1998, as deputy Prime Minister, he fell out with his “boss” Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, who sacked him rather unceremoniously, accusing him of corruption and sodomy. At that time, money politics was just starting in big style in the country, and the following sodomy trial was unspeakably tasteless with a mattress being carried into the court room etc. Convicted to nine years in prison, Anwar was freed in 2014 when the supreme court overturned the sodomy conviction. But the bad treatment, a striking symbol of it being Anwar being beaten up in prison and coming to court with a black eye, also triggered massive street protests and calls for reform. It facilitated the formation of a reform party called Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) or People’s Justice Party in 1999. Its success in the general election in 2008 was followed by another controversial sodomy trial and Anwar landed back in prison. After altogether 11 years in jail, the politician is unbroken and ambitious and charismatic as ever. After the May 2018 surprise defeat of the eternally ruling UMNO party, and his former nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad back as Prime Minister at the age of 93, Anwar is now back in parliament and, reconciled with Mahathir who even campaigned for him in the by-election, supposed to succeed him within the next two years. The PKR was led during Anwar’s prison time by his wife Wan Aziza, and survived all attacks under the premiership of Najib Razak, who may well end up in prison himself any time soon. 255px-Parti_Keadilan_Rakyat_logo.svgThe party logo, two white crescents on a blue background, supporters say symbolizes Anwar’s infamous black eye and the eye seeking justice.

Now the biggest party in parliament, the PKR is starting to reap the usual benefits of power. Its membership has nearly doubled to 900,000 compared to the landslide election on May 9th, and very probably the donors are queuing, including the ones who used to fund UMNO before and try now to save their lucrative projects with the government. PKR and Anwar himself are symbols of political perseverance and eventual success, paying a hefty price during their struggling years but also being successful because of severe political mistakes of the Najib government and its rampant corruption. Whether the banned CNRP opposition in Cambodia might be encouraged by the success of PKR is therefore a big open question.

Is this the Beginning of the End of Political Corruption in Southeast Asia?


Partyforumseasia: Most of the region’s countries, except Singapore – and Malaysia to a certain degree – rank as rather corrupt in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI). Here is an excerpt of the CPI 2017 for Southeast Asia:

Since politics has become a profitable business model in the region, many “unusually rich” politicians have attracted criticism from the taxpaying electorate, with envy or without. But, on the other hand, the funding of political parties is widely unregulated or, if contained by legislation, the rules are not enforced at all or only half heartedly. The election campaigns are increasingly expensive, so the necessity of getting donations at any cost, mainly from the private sector or by skimming public procurement and infrastructure projects, has brought about many “creative” solutions.

The financial creativity of the toppled Malaysian leader Najib Razak, who was virtually sitting on a gold mine with his dual role as Prime Minister and Finance Minister is legendary. The 1MDB scandal with billions missing has probably broken his neck in the 9 May election and brought back former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (93) who is now trying to clean up Malaysia and see Najib convicted.

Some recent headlines:
9 August: “Ex-PM accused of receiving $14m in proceeds of illegal activities from former 1MDB subsidiary.”

24 April: “Ex-speaker of parliament Setya Novanto sentenced to 15 years for his role in stealing $170m from public funds.”

6 August: “Vietnam court jails 46 bankers, execs for loan scheme. He joins scores of bankers, executives and former politicians behind bars in the one-party state that has long had the reputation of being one of Asia’s most corrupt countries.”

8 August: “Thaksin’s trial to begin without him.”
The former Thai Prime Minister lives in exile in Dubai since he was ousted in 2006. This case is especially remarkable because the alleged malfeasance took place in the 2003 Thai Petrochemical Industry (TPI) scandal. The retroactive prosecution has been made possible by a new law on criminal procedures for political office-holders which took effect in September 2017. Similar regulations existed in some Italian city states like Lucca and Pisa in the 12th century, but were forgotten since then.

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More information about the dilemma of money politics in Southeast Asia is available in our new publication ISBN 9789813230736 which covers nine of the ten ASEAN countries.

 

 

 

 

Malaysia’s UMNO Drama Unfolding Further


Latest development: Former PM Najib Razak detained on 3 July
at 3 p.m. by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)
___________________________________________________________

Partyforumseasia: The fall of Malaysia’s National Front (Barisan Nasional) coalition after nearly 61 years in power is revealing more and more dubious secrets of its business model. The advantages of being the incumbant for so long, and having practically unlimited control of the country’s rich financial resources, had led to a network of the leading UMNO and the smaller component parties with huge flows of cash, donations, and bribes. Details are being revealed one by one, all but two component parties have defected, heads are rolling, but maybe most symptomatic for the “money-politics-disease” are the astonishing amounts of valuables found in the different dwellings of defeated party president and prime minister Najib Razak. The list of confisated items so far looks unreal to say the least.

                    The current exchange rate is four Malaysian Ringgit for one USD.

Najib’s explanations are manifold: He was not aware of the jewellery items of his wife. Many pieces are not his own and must be returned to the jewellers.  Najib 1Accepting gifts is not illegal. Most of the money was for the party, etc. He has asked his lawyers already to start legal procedures to get the confiscated items back. Nevertheless, Najib claims that his party has to reform itself and abolish money politics and payments for internal elections. But the investigations are going on, and bank accounts belonging to Najib as well as UMNO’s party accounts are being frozen. The “new – broom – governmant” under returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is trying to sweep as clean as possible.

The Najib portraits show the changes from the self-assured election winner and unassailable party leader to the loser threatened by the Malaysian anti-corruption agency with prosecution and eventually a Najib scepticalprison term. His attempt to leave the country immediately after the election defeat was thwarted by concerned citizens, followed by an official travel ban.
Investigations into the billions lost in the 1MDB scandal are intensely going on, so far 408 bank accounts are frozen, and more indictments can be expected. It all started in 2015 with the 682 million US$ found in Najib’s private accounts making waves internationally. AAznfO4.imgThe investigations go back to hundreds of transactions to “a party”, individuals, and organizations since 2011. There is hope that at least part of the lost funds can be recovered for the state budget, though experience with the Marcos and Suharto billions in the Philippines and Indonesia are not encouraging.

Meanwhile UMNO tries to pick up the pieces and convince the voters that they have understood the verdict of the voters and are serious about reforming themselves. The internal elections over the last weekend have produced mixed results, though. Najib’s former deputy Zahid Hamidi has won the presidency, in his own view to guarantee the continuity, criticized by others as hara kiri of UMNO. “Young turk” and former youth leader Khairy Jamaluddin was first runner-up with respectable 61 branches (out of 191) voting for him against 99  for Zahid.

For an overview on party funding and money politics in Southeast Asia see our new book, available at https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/10726

10726.cover

Any Future for the Loser?


Partyforumseasia: Will the defeated Prime Minister end up in prison? One of the successful campaign slogans of the rather old (92, and dynamic) new Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was his calling Najib Razak a thief and his UMNO party corrupt to the core.

Najib's resignation 2

Loser loses all. Najib and his defense minister resign from all party posts.

Most political observers had believed that the 1MDB scandal would not play such an important role and that the memories had faded since it erupted in 2015. But voters, often characterized as forgetful, may have remembered the case and believed Mahathir that he was running only to save the country from the corrupt Barisan Nasional government. Obviously, only few Malaysians were unaware of the wasteful corruption going on and continuing to increase.
Now, Najib Razak is no longer Prime Minister, after a lightning transfer of power and the swearing in of his successor Mahathir within 24 hours after the election results were out. Najib, at least confronted the media to declare that he accepted the verdict of the people…without having a choice anyway. But an attempt to board a private jet and fly to Indonesia was thwarted by a crowd at the airport, and Mahathir did not hesitate to ban him  and his wife from leaving the country.
Since Mahathir has called it his biggest political mistake to help Najib become Prime Minister, the latter cannot expect lenience or mercy. His private residence is already cordoned off by the police. Mahathir announced already that the attorney general, who had whitewashed Najib soon after replacing a less compliant one, will be replaced shortly. Mahathir has vowed to investigate the 1MDB scandal and take action against those who may have abetted or benefited from corruption at the fund. At least six countries, including the United States and Switzerland, are investigating claims that $4.5 billion was allegedly siphoned off from 1MDB. If found guilty, Najib might end up in prison.

The Miraculous Resurrection of a Prime Minister


A winner’s smile

Partyforumseasia: What Malaysia’s incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak called the “mother of all elections” has turned out to be the end of his political career, unless he follows the winner, Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned in 2003 after 22 years in power and now comes back at the age of 92! If some politicians are worn down by the burden of office and age prematurely, others seem to be rejuvenated by campaigning. Mahathir does not look like a nonogenarian at all, and the crowds he was pulling in his relentless campaign during the last two weeks were already a signal that he might lead the opposition coalition to victory. This victory is certainly a world record.
That it was possible against all the odds and against the predictions of most political pundits  is more than remarkable. The incumbent Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN) had used all possible tricks and means to defend its majority. The latest were a sweeping gerrymandering exercise to make it even more difficult for the opposition, the election on a Wednesday with the expectation of a lower voter turnout, and a cornucopia of election goodies and promises for more after the election. Maybe the visible nervousness of PM Najib and the list of dirty tricks were helping the opposition to tip the scale. The victory is clear, in the national parliament as well as on the federal state level. The official results for the Federal Parliament are as follows:
Tan Sri Mohd Hashim Abdullah, chairman of the Election Commission,  announced at    4.40am on May 10, that BN won only 79 seats, down from 133, and won with only 47% of the popular vote. The Islamist PAS, suspected to be wiped out by many observers, survived with 18 seats. But even if PAS should coalesce with BN, they can’t form a government.  The former opposition coalition PKR has now 109 seats, the Parti Warisan Sabah eight, and with probably some more going to join, the victory is perfect. Mahathir is taking over the premiership again with a promise to hand it over to Anwar Ibrahim after he will be released from prison and pardoned by the king. July will end his prison term anyway which he is serving after a dubious conviction for alleged sodomy.

One of the main reasons for the landslide, called tsunami in the region, is the rising cost of living in a country rich in natural resources, and the all too obvious corruption in the BN system. What most observers had underestimated, but Mahathir managed to remind the voters of, was the dubious role of Najib Razak in the 1MDB scandal and the 682 million US$ in his private accounts. Few voters could believe his explanation that the money was a donation of the Saudi royal family for a wonderful Muslim ally in Southeast Asia. The future of Najib and the BN money cascade will be a very interesting case for follow-up research and comments. If it should help against the rampant political impunity, it will be good for the democratic development in the region.

 

 

Is PM Najib’s notorious self-confidence evaporating?


PM Najib looking more skeptical than normally

Partyforumseasia:  The die is cast“. Prime Minister Najib Razak did not say it nor is he Julius Caesar, and there is no guarantee that he has the latter’s legendary luck. But the Star newspaper is already speculating that the day of the dissolution of parliament, which paves the way for the long expected election (GE 14), on 7/4 adds up to Najib’s lucky number. The 11, they say, is meaningful throughout his life, from the birthdays of his parents, to his official car plates, and only last week 11 measures worth 2.9 billion RM to support Malay (bumiputra) SMEs. So far, the Prime Minister and uncontested leader of Malaysia’s ruling coalition and dominant UMNO party, was seen as not leaving anything to luck in preparation for the upcoming election. His strategy to divide and emasculate the opposition on unprecedented levels culminated last week with a controversial delineation exercise by the Election Commission which is under his department and not really independent. Another blow against the new Malay opposition party PPBM (United Indigenous Party) came from the Registrar of Societies on allegedly missing formalities which have been met from the beginning according to the PPBM leadership.

Is PM Najib getting nervous?
The long list of election-related moves could be an indication that Najib has access to information about a groundswell against UMNO and himself and starts to get nervous, maybe even frightened. Against all the odds, his self-declared nemesis, veteran PM Mahathir Mohamad (92), seems to rally not only the opposition, but making inroads into the classical Malay vote banks of the ruling coalition.

Dr. M laughs
Will he have the last laugh?

The most vulnerable spots in Najib’s flanks are the still unresolved 1MDB-scandal, though he denied any wrongdoing, skillfully following strategy handbooks, and the festering unhappiness of many Malaysians with the ever rising cost of living. Pacifying all grieving subgroups costs many billions and the increasing spending exercises of the Prime Minister start to betray a growing nervousness about what he calls “the father of all elections”.
Partyforumseasia has argued for some years already that Najib and UMNO must win the election at any cost because a defeat would be a catastrophy of Greek drama dimensions for the ruling system and its enormous internal  cash flows. One of the newest indicators are threats by the UMNO leadership against “disappointed” candidates who are not fielded any more. They might “betray” their party and will be dealt with after the election. Najib and UMNO have not left any important stone unturned. But all these unprecedented efforts, obviously very costly for the taxpayers, seem to increasingly damage the nimbus of the ruling party’s invincibility.

Tan Sri Hashim Gerry from the EC Malaysia?


Partyforumseasia: On Wednesday, 28 March, the Malaysian Parliament approved the redrawn electoral maps with 129 to 80 votes, safe enough to reach the simple majority of 112. Ruling coalition and opposition were given only one hour each for debate, while opposition and critics outside parliament accused the motion of gerrymandering in favor of the Malay vote banks in predominantly rural areas. Prime Minister Datuk Seri NajibNajib, in his cold-blooded style, declared the Election Commission (EC), which happens to be under his Prime Minister’s department, as impartial and the changes as only for the benefit of the Malaysian people. The critics, on the other hand, call it gerrymandering and they do have a valid point here. While the redelineation of electoral boundaries is common everywhere when demographic changes like urbanization make it necessary, the malapportionment in Malaysia is exceptional. In the 2013 election, the number of voters per precinct ranged from 15,700 for the smallest rural to 145,000 for the biggest urban one. And, not by chance, the most reliable voters for the ruling Bairsan Nasional (BN) coalition live in the small rural districts. This is why, in 2013, and also due to the first-past-the-post majoritarian election system, a shortfall of 4% in the popular vote was changed into a 20% majority of seats. On average, BN constituencies were won with 48,000 votes, while the opposition needed 79,000.

The original 1812 gerrymander

Elbridge Gerry was the famous governor of Massachusetts who started the delineation trick in 1812 to benefit his Democratic Republican Party. And one of the precincts looked like a dragon or salamander, hence the new notion of gerrymandering.

If demographic change necessitates corrections, the opposition would normally accept fair changes. And in most democracies, these changes are being executed quietly, most voters don’t care. The Malaysian last minute exercise, however, is stirring up protest because it happens so closely before the elections expected in May. This might turn out to be a strategic mistake of PM Najib, who has already procrastinated with the election date due latest in August. So far, he has braved all the pressure created by the 1MDB financial and other scandals and pacified many unhappy former supporters with financial largesse. But the delay has given the opposition more time to rally under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad who is all out to topple Najib.
It looks debatable whether the redrawn boundaries are strictly following the demographic changes. If the opposition is right, they do follow ethnic patterns as well, like in Subang close to Kuala Lumpur. The borders, at least, look increasingly complicated and salamander-like as shown in this 2013 – 2018 comparison.
Map: Singapore’s Straits Times (LINK)

 

Wise Old Man or Running Amok?


Partyforumseasia:  Dr Mahathir Mohamad does not look his age of 92, and the unrelenting campaign he is leading against Prime Minister Najib Razak seems to invigorate and energise him even more. During his 22 years (1981 – 2003) Mahathir nowas Prime Minister he was not known for being too choosy with policies and actions against competitors and the opposition. His training background as a medical doctor was often used to explain the surgical precision of his shrewed and decisive political maneuvres.
Controversial as his tenure was on the one hand, Malaysia’s economic progress during the Mahathir years remains undisputed on the other. Some projects have seen less than lasting success, like the creation of a home-grown car industy, the Proton Saga, but under his supervision Malaysia has seen enormous growth and modernization.
Politically, the racial imbalance of the country had led to affirmative action in favor of the Malay population long before Mahathir, but he refined the system in a way that secured the dominance of his UMNO party until today.
After engineering the ouster of his immediate successor, Abdullah Badawi, in 2009, Mahathir has now turned against Prime Minister Najib Razak. He left UMNO and founded a new Malay party, Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) in January 2017.
For such a young party, the organizational progress is impressive. According to one of the leading internal political analysts of Malaysia, Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) and at the moment reseach fellow at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, PPBM has established divisions in 137 out of 165 parliamentary constituencies in Peninsular Malaysia, and about 200.000 membership applications of predominantly younger people. See Wan Saiful’s latest analysis in Singapore’s Straits Times on 1 January (LINK).
PPBM, translated as Malaysian United Indigenous Party, is eyeing the Malay core voters, who, so far, have been voting for the ruling UMNO or its Islamist competitor PAS. The question is, of course, whether the unhappiness with the prevailing level of money politics and corruption can divert traditional UMNO supporters, who are not close to the PAS fundamentalists either, into voting for PPBM in the upcoming election due by August. Mahathir’s role as opposition leader is curtailed by the co-operation with the predominantly Chinese Democratic Action Party, which has been successfully defamed as anti-Malay and anti-Islam by UMNO propaganda.

Naj

Prime Minister Najib Razak

UMNO, however, does not take its victory for granted, and is setting everything in motion to weaken all the splintered opposition forces which it had already seen as toothless with former leader Anwar Ibrahim in prison and by getting closer to PAS which has left the opposition coalition. The newest re-delineation of constituency boundaries shows that the old gerrymandering tricks are being refined again. Malaysia’s level of malapportionment is rather unique and still growing.
For Mahathir the fight is more than uphill, but his energy at the age of 92 is remarkable, and his charisma and image are still working some magic and pulling the crowds. His determination to topple the Prime Minister might convince more voters than the polls predict by now that the UMNO system is detrimental for the country. But Najib and his cronies can be expected to do more than it needs to defend their dominance and the financial network.

 

How to Cement your Grip on Power


Partyforumseasia: Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord (17541838), the French statesman and diplomat, held high positions through the French revolution, the Napoleonic era, and the Vienna Congress. He was famous for his political skills, flexibility, and venality. In a well-known bon mot he is quoted as saying that the farewell from power is the most painful farewell in the world. Two political leaders in Southeast Asia, the Prime Ministers of Cambodia and Malaysia, Hun Sen and Najib Razak, seem to feel like Talleyrand and try to avoid losing the upcoming elections at any price.
Strongman Hun Sen has successfully destroyed the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the last few months. Driving the original leader, Sam Rainsy, into exile, and imprisoning Sam’s deputy and successor, Kem Sokha, was not enough for him. With his CPP-majority in parliament, he had no problem tweaking the party law and had the CNRP dissolved by the constitutional court. More CNRP leaders preferred to escape into self-exile before being detained.
The background and final motif of Prime Minister Hun Sen might be the conviction, based on findings of his intelligence apparatus, that the election coming up in 2018 is not going to be a sure win, and that there is a groundswell against his 32-year authoritarian rule. The local elections in June showed massive gains of the opposition CNRP, and revealed that the ruling party had not even secured the votes of all CPP party members. After getting the opposition out of the way, most of their parliamentary seats have been given to the Norodom Ranariddh Party, which had been wiped out in the 2013 election.
The political cost on the international level might grow in the meantime. Apart from Hun’s  loss of face and the already dented image, the EU is considering sanctions which could hurt Cambodia’s textile imdustry, one of the country’s important cash cows. The Prime Minister seems to count on closer relations and support from the big neighbour China as a handy way of balancing the loss of Western funding, as massive as it was hitherto.

The Malaysian case is similar in the way that Prime Minister Najib Razak is all out to reduce or prevent the challenge of an opposition win in the elections due by August 2018 latest, but possible any time earlier at the discretion of the prime minister. When the unprecedented corruption scandal around Najib, his stepson, and his UMNO party, broke out in 2015, with 682 million US$ found in his private accounts, not many observers beleived in his political survival. But his cold-blooded survival instinct, as well as his absolute control over the country’s finances, since he is finance minister as well, seems to have cemented his grip on power and his unchallenged leadership position in the party.
Dividing or destroying the opposition is a game of Najib which is more sophisticated than the one in Cambodia. The opposition coalition, so far, does not seem united enough to seriously challenge UMNO and its Barisan Nasional coalition. The most charismatic opponent, Anwar Ibrahim, already 70, is still in prison on a controversial conviction for sodomy. Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is fighting Najib relentlessly, but at 92, Najib does not take him too seriously any more. Finally, the long-term rival party PAS, an Islamic party with the same vote banks as UMNO among pious and rural Malays, has left the opposition and is now closer to Najib. Vilifying the biggest opposition party, the Chinese dominated DAP, as anti-Malay and anti-Islam, is another promising strategy of the Prime Minister and UMNO president. Obviously, the heavy lopsided gerrymandering which just got the Appeal Court’s green light for further fine tuning, is not seen as a sufficient life insurance. All these manoeuvres, like in Cambodia, betray at least that the leaders have some doubts about their winnability, but, of course, the determination to win at any cost.

Talleyrand, if he could observe this, would understand the two: losing power would be too painful for them and their cronies…

False Hope for the Alliance of Hope?


Partyforumseasia: 

With the wild rumors swirling about an early date for the next general election in Malaysia, everybody wonders about the chances of the opposition to win in its third attempt. 2008 and 2013 saw important advances against the ruling National Front (Barisan Nasional or BN) coalition, but the gerrymandered election system, expensive gifts to certain voter groups, clever fear mongering, and insufficient co-ordination among the opposition parties kept UMNO and BN comfortably in power.

Prime minister Najib Razak, who is also president of UMNO, quite shrewdly managed to dismantle the People’s Pact (Pakatan Rakyat or PR) by eliminating its leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister, probably the only politician who could unite the opposition. The seventy-year-old leading figure of the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat), is still in jail with a controversial conviction for sodomy and banned from politics for five years. For the ruling BN coalition, the end of the Pakatan Rakyat in 2015 was a dream come true.

PM Najib, in the meantime, had other dangerous problems. The 1MDB financial scandal with billions disappeared from this state fund and hundreds of millions discovered in the prime minister’s private accounts would have led to his resignation or unseating in most other political systems. Not so in Malaysia. With remarkable cold blood and chutzpah, Najib has not only survived the storm so far but cemented his leadership in party and coalition as well.

But the opposition is reorganizing itself as well. And 91-year-old veteran politician and former long-term prime minister Mahathir Mohamad is playing an interesting role in this new game. He has left UMNO and started a new party, the United Indigenous Party (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or PPBM) and just joined the new opposition coalition, the Alliance of Hope (Pakatan Harapan).
This new coalition unites now four opposition parties, namely Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), a Chinese-dominated party with a socialist approach, the National Trust Party (Parti Amanah Negara), a splinter from Islamist PAS, and Mahathir’s PPBM as newest member since 20 March. The PH coalition is planning to optimize its forces by campaigning with a common logo and without competing against each other in any constituency.

With PAS keeping a hostile distance toward Pakatan Harapan because of the “anti-Malay” DAP and the “renegade” Amanah, the opposition has lost a former ally with a stable number of seats in the national parliament. The BN coalition of UMNO and twelve component parties holds 132 of the 222 seats. To oust BN and PM Najib, the opposition would need at least 112 seats. This looks like a tall order at the moment, up from 75 in the sitting parliament.

The next general election is formally only due by August 2018, but in the British tradition, the prime minister can call it earlier at his discretion and sense of opportunity. Najib is obviously playing the guessing game for all, has started the BN campaign machinery, and, most importantly, has survived the financial scandal so far with gaining more strength and power in his own party and coalition. His power to fire any internal critic and any civil servant or legal office bearer, and his grip on the government’s and the party’s cash flows, make him look more or less unbeatable. Large parts of the population, especially his Malay vote banks, seem to be relatively unfazed by the financial scandal, and the new proximity with PAS and its Islamist hudud (Muslim criminal punishments) project makes it even more difficult for the opposition.

But no election victory is ever guaranteed. With all the instruments in his hand, from the Election Commission to the money supply and distribution, the prime minister may still be feel too sure about winning. If the Pakatan Harapan coalition manages to unite and avoid all three cornered fights, and, of course, find the appropriate central message to the voters, nothing can be excluded.

Malaysia: Mahathir’s or Najib’s War of Attrition?


King

Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, King of Malaysia

Partyforumseasia: So far, Prime Minister Najib Razak has managed to weather the months of heavy political head winds with remarkable cold blood. His former mentor turned nemesis, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, so far, has been the driving force in a sort of “Oust-Najib-Movement” and recently brought together a group of Najib enemies described in the Malaysian media as “strange bedfellows”, especially because Mahathir’s earlier victim, Anwar Ibrahim, has joined from behind bars. He has been imprisoned under Mahathir and is now serving a five year term under Najib, again for alleged sodomy and again perceived as politically motivated.

Last Monday, 7th March, in a speech at the opening of parliament, Malaysia’s 88-year-old King, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, “told Malaysian legislators that they should stop playing politics of narrow interests, as this has gone on for so long that it has become stressful for the people and the government.” (Asia One).  Given the circumstances of the entrenched war between the PM and his domestic foes, the king’s admonition sounds rather in support of Najib and very probably won’t end the war of attrition by Mahathir and partners including the opposition. But Mahathir has a credibility problem himself. Many Najsee him guilty of starting the level of money politics he is accusing Najib of, only that Najib with the hundreds of millions in his private accounts has pushed it to unprecedented levels and triggered international suspicion.

Money politics under Najib: If the king may not wield much political influence, there are other strong arguments for the Prime Minister’s supporters in the UMNO party hierarchy to keep the number of defectors relatively small. “He didn’t invent the system but Najib has perfected the art of sleaze”, writes the AsiaSentinel on 2 March (Link), and continues with very concrete figures:

“Once a month, each of the 191 loyal district chiefs that make up the hierarchy of the United Malays National Organization receives RM50,000 for “expenses.” It doesn’t come from Malaysia’s fiscal budget. It comes from Prime Minister Najib Razak’s personal accounts at Ambank in KL. Multiplied out, that totals RM114.6 million annually (US$27.498 million). It is a system that has sustained party loyalty through several premiers for 35 years, if Najib is to be believed, and it points to the deep, long-running corruption of the entire Malaysian political system. It is just part of what keeps Najib in power against the combined investigations of five countries on allegations of money laundering, fraud and bribery.”

The Wall Street Journal is also in the forefront of questioning PM Najib’s personal finances by publishing beginning of March new estimations that he has more than a billion US$ in his personal accounts and that much of it originates from the mismanaged and debt-ridden 1MDB investment fund whose board of advisers happens to be chaired by Mr. Najib.

In regional comparison money politics and patronage are common and sophisticated. Members of parliament as well as local office bearers of political parties are expected to “help” their voters, from waving parking tickets to funding businesses. But it seems that relatively rich Malaysia has reached levels which a majority of voters is no longer prepared to condone. Najib seems to be in control so far, not least because the opposition is divided, but the scandals may change the public mood so much against UMNO that Najib will be more of a liability than until today.
Strategy-wise, though, Najib follows the (immoral) textbook prescriptions: Business as usual, deny everything until you can’t deny it any more and in thin slices, attack the attackers, and eliminate your internal enemies.

Political Hunting Season in Malaysia


Mukhriz

Former Chief Minister – since yesterday 3 February

Partyforumseasia: Datuk Seri Mukhriz Mahathir, son of former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, has finally resigned from his post as chief minister of the federal state of Kedah after only 30 months. As the rumors go he was asked three times in a week to sign a prepared resignation letter. Claiming that he was forced out because of his (and his father’s) criticism of prime minister Najib Razak and the series of financial scandals he is alleged to be involved in, Mr. Mukhriz did not hesitate to counterattack:
“Sorry to say that as long as Najib is still there, Umno is at its weakest point right now. Scandal after scandal, I think we can’t take it all, it is too much for us. It is really traumatising to all of us. We can’t hold our heads high. Now I will have more opportunity to fight on and speak out for the people because this will not shut me up,” he is quoted as saying by Singapore’s Straits Times (Link).

Prime Minister  Najib’s control of their common party UMNO looks more than total at the moment, but with Swiss and Singaporean banks being involved in the 1MDB scandal the shells are landing ever closer. And never underestimate estranged and sidelined party members. The roles of hunted and hunters can change:
In the first German children’s book, first published in 1845, the hare steals the hunter’s rifle and starts to hunt the hunter…
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A New Broom Sweeps Clean – PM Najib Cleared of Corruption by New Attorney General


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PM Najib still smiling

Partyforumseasia: Under much pressure because of a personal donation of nearly 700 million USD from an undisclosed Middle Eastern source in his private account, Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia has shown remarkable cold blood. Knowing that he dominates his party UMNO practically unchallenged by lack of possible successors, he sacked a critical deputy president and the Attorney General who was daring enough to look deeper into the donation case. The replacement, Apandi Ali, closed the case on 26 January and stated that there was no evidence of corruption on the side of the Prime Minister. Nevertheless, two oversight panels, the Operations Review Panel and a Special Panel, have asked the AG to explain how he came to this conclusion. The move seems to signal that the Prime Minister’s narrative is so unusual that Malaysia’s public and voters are not yet ready to close the case as readily as the new Attorney General.
In terms of his communication policy PM Najib is in line with political strategy textbooks, namely admit only what you cannot deny and admit only in thin slices. In the meantime, the source of the donation has been revealed as the Saudi royal family. According to a Reuters-based article on Channelnewsasia (Link), Najib has paid back to the donors a sum of 620 million USD. While there are no explanations about the rest of the money, the Saudi side is not confirming nor denying the transaction.”Saudi foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir, during a visit to Malaysia late October 2015, did not deny when asked whether his government donated money to Najib. “Saudi and Malaysia are close allies and partners we work closely together on regional issues as well as international issues that affect Islamic world,” he said. “We coordinate our political position with regards to events in the Middle East and other places. This is something we do.”

Meanwhile, also from the political strategy textbook, Najib attacks his harshest critic and pre-predecessor Mahathir Mohamad by obviously allowing an internal party initiative  for the sacking of the latter’s son Mukhriz Mahathir from his post as chief minister of the federal state of Kedah.

This strategy may work, but the fight is not over. The Latin saying “audacter calumniare, semper aliquid haeret” means “slander boldly, something always sticks”, but nota bene: The Saudi donation saga is not just slander but a web of facts and fiction where nobody can be sure that more and more will come to light. The UMNO leadership may be backing Najib as long as he controls the financial snowball system, but the dangers for the tainted reputation of the party are lingering for too long already.
First rumors are here that Najib is preparing for a face-saving exit with guarantees of immunity. See The Diplomat on 22 January: “Will Malaysia’s Najib Finally Quit? Speculation is mounting that the embattled premier may seek a face-saving exit.” (Link)

Malaysia: “Fortress” UMNO threatened by Own Supporters?


Partyforumseasia: As the saying goes, with certain friends you don’t need enemies. One possibly dangerous ally of Malaysia’s ruling party UMNO is the support group Perkasa, founded in 2008. It is supposed to have a membership of over 400.000, but probably a majority among them are also UMNO members. Perkasa has been established to defend the leading role of the country’s Malay population and their special rights, enshrined in Article 153 of the constitution. Privileges for the Malays and other indigenous groups (called together “Bumiputera” or sons of the soil) go back to colonial times. The British had imported Chinese and Indian labor in big numbers, but later the decisive division became more economic and social with predominantly rural Malays and more affluent city dwellers from the immigrant minorities. Unfortunately, the imbalance is persisting until today despite all quotas and support programs of successive UMNO-led governments.
Najib Nov.   The big strategic challenge for Prime Minister Najib is the necessity to reform certain outdated provisions like the sedition act and others to win over more votes from the minorities on one hand, and at the same time convince the Malay clientele that he will not touch their privileges. After winning the last election with only 48% of the popular vote with the help of a lopsided election law, Najib faces  challenges now from both sides. And on top of that his pre-predecessor Mahathir, who has already toppled his own direct successor, is increasingly critical vis-a-vis Najib. Dr. M
In this difficult situation Perkasa is not exactly a helpful support group but pours constantly oil in the fire. Their initiatives against perceived and alleged Chinese, Indian, or Christian threats against the Malay and Muslim majority increase all the latent tensions. The minorities are frightened of Muslim criminal law (hudud) for all, hairsplitting controversies about who may use the word Allah and the distribution of bibles in Malay as well as many other gross exaggerations coming from Perkasa.
Strategy-wise the organization threatens to be much more of a liability than a support group and undermines the Prime Minister’s efforts to reduce the tensions and deep divisions after the 2013 election. Asking him now before the UMNO convention to drop most of the so-called “liberal” reforms amounts to stabbing him in the back. And Perkasa adviser Mahathir should carefully weigh the doses of vitriol he pours on Najib.

UMNO’s Party Elections- Another Rising Son?


Mukhriz 2Partyforumseasia: Fierce competition inside a political party is the best time for observers and researchers to get a better picture of what is going on inside. The preparations for the internal elections which should have taken place already in 2012 but were postponed because of the May 2013 general election reveal a few things about UMNO after the extremely narrow victory which keeps it in power.
One interesting detail is that six candidates compete for three vice-presidential posts whereas PM Najib Razak und his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin remain unchallenged.
Among the six vice-presidential hopefuls one is more interesting than most of the others because he happens to be the son of former party president and long serving prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. This son, Mukhriz Mahathir, newly appointed chief minister of the federal state of Kedah immediately after the May election, is on the way up and would be a possible successor of PM Najib if elected as vice-president.

His father, Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, like many other elder statesmen, continues to comment on everything political in the country, but still wields more real influence than most of his peers. His direct support for his rising son and his vice-presidential ambitions may help a lot in this special area of political culture. (In most European countries this open support would be counterproductive).
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Source: Straits Times (Singapore) today, 26-9-2013.

But there is a nice irony involved which seems to go unnoticed by father Mahathir when he says:
“Eventually people get bored of these outdated leaders who refuse to accept the reality.”
A European proverb is saying that you should not throw stones if you sit in a glass house…

Another interesting detail is the contest for chairing the women’s wing. Incumbent Shahrizat, who was involved in a massive corruption scandal under the headline “Cowgate” seems to enjoy endorsement for another term by PM Najib. But her challenger, senator Mazlah Maznan has good chances to replace Shahrizat exactly because of Cowgate.
UMNO is the biggest Malaysian party with 3.4 million members and the results of next month’s convention promise to be interesting!