Najib’s popularity likely key to Umno victory in polls

Umno, fearful of losing power again, is unlikely to carry out reforms that would alienate many Malay voters. The Nov 19 electoral contest appears likely to reinforce Malaysia’s deep-rooted, ethnically based identity politics.

(FMT) – Malaysia will hold a general election on Nov 19, with the counting of votes to take place the same day.

The 15th general election since the country’s independence in 1957 will be a four-way race. The first contestant is the ruling Umno-Barisan Nasional, to which Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob belongs, headed by former deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

There are also two coalitions, led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin and PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, respectively. A coalition formed by former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will also take part.

All of the major political players once belonged to Umno but split from the party. In the previous general election, in May 2018, Mahathir, Muhyiddin and Anwar jointly launched an anti-corruption campaign and toppled Umno from power.

In the coming election, opposition parties “cannot band together, although they put up the same flag”, according to Masashi Nakamura, director at the Japan External Trade Organization’s Institute of Developing Economies.

“The differences in policy between them are unclear. It is therefore difficult for voters to choose a party to lead the government,” Nakamura said.

Anti-Umno parties see former prime minister Najib Razak as a symbol of corruption. He was convicted of embezzlement, sentenced in August to 12 years in prison and fined RM210 million after losing his final appeal. Although Najib cannot run in the election, he is considered key to an Umno victory at the polls.

Umno is trying to hold on to Najib’s political power base. The party was supposedly planning to apply for his temporary release from jail to gain his support for its candidates in the November election, but legal authorities turned down the request in mid-October.

Umno is reportedly planning to pick a placeholder for Najib before the election officially kicks off on Nov. 5. If that candidate wins and Najib is pardoned by the King, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the placeholder would resign, opening a door for Najib’s return to Parliament through a by-election. There are also reports saying they are moving to back Najib’s eldest son.

Najib’s status remains murky. He is Malaysia’s first former prime minister to be convicted of a crime. Normally, a political party would try to dissociate itself from such a person, but Umno is instead highlighting its ties to Najib due a sudden resurgence in his popularity with voters.

Since losing his position as prime minister, Najib had been trying to restore his tarnished image, mainly through his “Bossku” campaign on social media. Despite his blue-blooded background as the eldest son of Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister, and as nephew of the third prime minister, Hussein Onn, Najib had adopted a rougher-edged persona, posting photos of himself sporting a leather jacket and riding a big motorcycle. He had not been shy about voicing his political opinions or criticising his foes, either.

The social media campaign knocked Mahathir, who replaced him as prime minister, back on his heels.

Mahathir’s government gave the most important Cabinet post, that of finance minister, to Lim Guan Eng, then secretary-general of DAP, which has a political base among ethnic Chinese. Lim became the first ethnic Chinese to assume the post in 44 years. The appointment provoked a backlash from ethnic Malays, who feared that they would lose special privileges given to them under the government’s long-standing Bumiputera policy.

Mahathir also dropped his pledge to ratify a UN treaty against racial discrimination, which has been ratified by about 180 countries, due to strong public opposition. He had reportedly hoped to make Lim’s appointment and the ratification of the UN treaty symbols of Malaysia’s ethnic harmony. The effort not only failed by riling up the majority Malays, but sparked sympathy for Najib, who has 4.6 million followers on Facebook and 1 million on Instagram.

Although Umno suffered its worst-ever result in the 2018 election, the Bossku phenomenon had not only helped Najib but the former ruling party, said Joseph Chinyong Liow, a professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This led to Umno landslides in state elections in Melaka in November 2021 and Johor in March 2022, he said.

The votes of the Malays, who make up 70% of the electorate, will be decisive in the 15th general election. Umno has traditionally been supported by the overwhelming majority of the Malays, thanks to the party’s financial and organisational muscle.

But the departure of high-profile personalities such as Anwar, Mahathir and Muhyiddin has weakened it. The 2018 general election brought a change in government because Umno deserters put aside their differences and worked together, splitting the ethnic Malay vote.

Infighting between anti-Umno parties in the general election means that some candidates in the anti-Umno camp will be competing against each other in the same constituencies. That will help the governing party, which is expected to win back lost Malay votes.

Another factor at play is a constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age to 18 from 21. That brought in nearly six million new voters. Najib’s popularity among young Malays on social media will become “a more useful political asset for Umno than before”, said Ayame Suzuki, a professor at Japan’s Doshisha University.

Umno has been out of power for just two years in the country’s 65-year history. The question is whether Malaysia will become more politically stable if it wins a public mandate again on Nov 19.

The answer is probably not.

After the May 1969 incident, racial tensions threatened to tear the country apart. Umno has traditionally held a huge number of seats in parliament, but always formed coalitions with non-Malay parties, such as MCA, Gerakan and MIC. This “grand coalition,” called Barisan Nasional, allowed Umno to maintain stability by taking minority Chinese and Indian interests into account, even as it kept the Bumiputera policy in place.

The three non-Malay parties in BN won 50 seats in parliament in the 2004 general election. In the 2018 election, however, they saw their combined total plunge to three seats due to the emergence of opposition parties, such as DAP. To stay in power, Umno will have to lean even more heavily on ethnic Malay votes in the coming election.

Moves to revisit the Bumiputera policy surfaced during the governments of Najib and his predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. For now, however, Umno, fearful of losing power again, is unlikely to carry out reforms that would alienate many Malay voters.

The Nov 19 electoral contest appears likely to reinforce Malaysia’s deep-rooted, ethnically based identity politics.