MS Risk Blog

Najib Razak’s conviction: a political earthquake for Malaysia

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Malaysia has experienced in the last month an unprecedented political turmoil. On 23 August the Malaysian Federal Court confirmed a sentence of twelve years in prison for corruption for former Prime Minister Najib Razak.  The 69-year-old former president was found guilty of the misappropriation of 42 million ringgit (US$9.421 million) from the state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). Najib, who ruled the country from April 2009 to May 2018, faces four other trials for the 1MDB scandal, the country’s largest corruption case that came to light in 2015 thanks to a journalistic investigation into the diversion of funds to the accounts of the then president and founder of the fund. Moreover, Malaysia’s Federal Court sentenced Rosmah Mansor, wife of former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, to 10 years in prison for taking bribes, just days after her husband was jailed for corruption.

Najib is Malaysia’s first former Prime Minister to be convicted and imprisoned. Having used up all legal avenues, a royal pardon is Najib’s only hope to get out of jail. Najib officially submitted his pardon request to King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, but the royal pardon is unlikely because Najib still faces trials on other charges. Without the royal pardon Najib would not be able to contest the next general elections scheduled for September 2023. This situation has created a political turmoil that could lead to the early call of general elections. In fact, Malaysia’s Election Commission (MEC) confirmed that its state offices are ready to hold the next general election as soon as the parliament is dissolved. The MEC informed that the election is expected to cost around RM1 billion (about US$224 million). The political campaign is already taking place on social media and political leaders are visiting different states of the country to give speeches at social gatherings. Now that the political situation is so uncertain, every political party is by default in campaign mode trying to fish for political points. Two factors have to be taken into account to analyse this political turmoil: the dominant political party and the rejuvenated opposition parties.

First of all, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party to which Najib belongs and that has ruled the country for decades, has seen a dramatic decrease in its popularity for two reasons. Apart from the historic conviction of Najib, his current leader, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, will probably be also convicted of Criminal Breach of Trust (CBT), money laundering and corruption in the following months. Ahmad himself called for elections to be held in the country as soon as possible during a briefing in Kuala Lumpur, ideally before he gets convicted too. Calling an early election is also beneficial for the UMNO right now because of the better-than-expected economy and a fractured opposition. The UMNO also wants to use its success in the regional elections in Johor (March 2022), Melaka (November 2021), and Sabah (September 2020) before its popular support decreases even further.

This means that UMNO’s traditional leader (Najib) and its current leader (Ahmad) are both accused of corruption, and the party is in a very weak position at the moment, compared to its dominant position decades ago. Now there is a third person trying to get control of the UMNO party: Ismail Sabri. Sabri is waiting for Ahmad to be convicted in order to get control of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and start an immediate reorganization, regenerating UMNO’s branding into something acceptable to the Malay electorate. As it can be seen, the UMNO party is not at its best. To crown it all, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, member of the UMNO, has come under pressure from his party to call for early elections, even though the UMNO denies this ultimatum. This political uncertainty translates into a golden opportunity for opposition parties.

Opposition parties in Malaysia have experienced a fresh push with Najib’s conviction. After all, the images of Najib being physically escorted to Kajang Prison made many Malaysians realize that the rule of law had prevailed. Ahead of the next general elections (regardless of their date), opposition parties must create an attractive candidate line-up to confront the -weakened but still popular- UMNO. One of the main challenges for the opposition will be to gain the vote of young people, as most of them have been influenced through the education system to defend a Malay-centric state, something they see as more important than opposition-pledged reforms. One of the main opposition groups, the Pakatan Harapan coalition (consisting of centre-left and centre-right parties) has already started a series of large-scale political rallies across the country.

Last but not least, Najib’s jail sentence has showed that the judiciary has remained a strong institution during the conviction process of Najib. The judiciary has traditionally been seen submissive vis-à-vis the corrupt elites, who have routinely acted with impunity. Many members of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) denounced that Najib had been subject of a politically motivated witch-hunt and had not received a fair trial. In this case, the judiciary managed to overcome political pressure, smear campaigns and mudslinging. The allegations of an unfair trial against Najib will likely become one of the main topics of the political campaign ahead of the general elections.

Unless there is a royal pardon, Najib’s conviction will be remembered in Malaysia’s history as a moment when corruption was not tolerated. Moreover, his conviction will also be remembered as an event that triggered political instability in the country. The most likely scenario in the next 12 months in Malaysia is thus a general election where a reformed UMNO party confronts a revised opposition.