Najib’s prison politics rock Malaysia
Any move against Ismail Sabri would entail a breakup of Perikatan Nasional or an election loss. But Ismail Sabri’s hand will also be weakened if push comes to shove regarding his cold war with Zahid. Support from the PAS, PPBM and some new guard UMNO parliamentary members will not ensure his victory in a leadership spill.
Ömer Faruk Yildiz, Anadolu Agency, East Asia Forum
After four years of a tiring judicial process, Malaysia’s Federal Court finally upheld the High Court’s decision to sentence former prime minister Najib Razak to 12 years in jail for his involvement in the corruption of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and the Strategic Resource Company.
During the trial, Najib tried everything possible to turn the judgement in his favour. From building a heroic public image through social media campaigns to embracing his supporters through state visits, he did his best to hide the accusations against him. As religion plays a decisive role in Malaysian politics, Najib emphasised his devotion to Islam by reciting prayers before court hearings and making strategic appearances in mosques to garner more Malay–Muslim support.
Although he did manage to consolidate hard-line supporters within his party, the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), none of them helped overturn the judicial process. The hopes held by his old-guard comrades that the premiership of UMNO member Ismail Sabri Yaakob would benefit Najib’s trial ultimately faded. The judicial system and UMNO-led government did not bow to pressure from Najib’s politicking.
The court’s decision to convict Najib and prosecute 1MDB appears to be more than just a political move. Najib’s imprisonment caused quite a stir in the UMNO party and Malaysian politics. UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s repeated calls for a snap election and royal pardon for Najib have heaped pressure on current Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and highlighted the rift between the old and new guards of the UMNO party.
Ismail Sabri was expected to give in to demands to save Najib from prison to prevent himself from being sacked, but the Prime Minister seems to be holding the line. He called the pressure from Zahid a ‘difference of opinion’ and has not commented on snap elections or a royal pardon. His confidence is not attributable to his popularity among the UMNO grassroots or the public but rather his knowledge that the governing Perikatan Nasional coalition holds him in higher esteem than Zahid.
Having defeated the former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin through political manoeuvring, Zahid might be under the impression that he could similarly intimidate Muhyiddin’s successor. Zahid could use his power within the UMNO to eliminate Ismail Sabri. But this would upset the balance of power within Perikatan Nasional and reduce the UMNO’s chance of winning the next general election.
Zahid cannot justifiably eliminate someone he once wanted to see as a leader. The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Malaysian United Indigenous Party (PPBM) — the other components of the Perikatan Nasional coalition — are on good terms with Ismail Sabri. The PAS and PPBM will side with Ismail Sabri in the event of any political manoeuvring by Zahid. The opposition might support Ismail Sabri until the next election to prevent the UMNO’s old guard from returning to power.
Calling for a snap election and nominating an old guard loyalist for the prime ministership will not do Zahid any favours. The coalition will not agree to such demands and voters will reject any candidate looking to interfere with the 1MDB trial results. Barisan Nasional’s unexpected defeat in the 2018 general elections was proof of this. Any move against Ismail Sabri would entail a breakup of Perikatan Nasional or an election loss. But Ismail Sabri’s hand will also be weakened if push comes to shove regarding his cold war with Zahid. Support from the PAS, PPBM and some new guard UMNO parliamentary members will not ensure his victory in a leadership spill.