Malaysia Party Elites to Meet as Najib Staying Power Tested

  • Prime minister has removed critics from positions of power
  • Ruling party has lost support as shown in 2013 elections

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak faces a test of his staying power after five months of political turmoil, with members of the ruling party meeting this week as tensions simmer among its leaders.

Najib will probably use the United Malays National Organisation annual assembly to appeal for unity as a funding scandal rocks his administration. He heads Malaysia’s biggest political party, which has been in power since independence since 1957. Still, UMNO had its worst showing yet in the 2013 election and its Vice President Hishammuddin Hussein said last month it faces a trust deficit and is losing its connection with members.

Much will depend on any comments by UMNO’s powerful division chiefs, who have largely backed Najib. What they say will indicate if the worst is over for the premier after revelations that 2.6 billion ringgit ($615 million) appeared in his private accounts before the 2013 vote. Since July he’s faced accusations of wrongdoing by the opposition and some members of UMNO -- with the resultant turmoil sending the ringgit lower -- and has sidestepped calls to step down.

Division Chiefs

Najib’s also removed detractors including Muhyiddin Yassin as deputy prime minister and an attorney general who was part of a team investigating if the money in his accounts was linked to a troubled state investment company. The premier has said the funds were donations from the Middle East and not from 1Malaysia Development Bhd. or public money, and were used for the party and community.

At least 188 of the 191 divisions in UMNO aren’t "antagonistic" toward the party leadership or the government, Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi told the New Straits Times in an interview published Sunday. A majority of motions submitted by divisions called for support of Najib’s leadership, Hishammuddin told the same paper.

"UMNO remains very feudalistic," said Oh Ei Sun, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and Najib’s political secretary from 2009 to 2011. "When the party president shows great power and determination to hang on, the acquiescence from UMNO leaders will kick in and they will stay in line.”

Slowing Economy

The nearly 740 motions up for discussion at the five-day gathering in Kuala Lumpur starting Tuesday range from education to religion and the economy, which is slowing amid weaker business and consumer sentiment. Investors have periodically dumped Malaysia’s stocks, bonds and currency this year.

Najib, 62, has faced a public campaign waged by former premier Mahathir Mohamad to get him out. Mahathir has warned that UMNO and the broader Barisan Nasional coalition risk losing the next election due by 2018 if Najib stays on.

Internally though Najib’s built a support network that ranges from government ministers to party division heads. He’s rallied rank and file members with a variety of pro-Malay policies, and delved into the populist playbook to unveil a budget in October sprinkled with handouts and subsidies. He’s also bought some insurance, postponing party elections scheduled for next year by 18 months. 

Najib Testimony

In the meantime, the government has hastened efforts to pare down debt at 1MDB, whose existence has been dogged by controversy and become a source of criticism of Najib, who chairs its advisory board. With Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali saying he wants the donations probe to be completed by the end of this year, Najib spoke to anti-graft officials on Saturday for more than two hours.

"It is evident that Najib will go into the UMNO AGM in a stronger position," said Nur Jazlan Mohamed, a division leader in southern Malaysia who is deputy home minister. "He has survived 1MDB and many in UMNO have accepted the situation and the explanations."

The need to show unity at the congress means some traditions will be broken. The UMNO deputy president typically officiates the opening of the women and youth wings’ meeting but won’t do so this time and may not get a chance to give a closing speech. The post is currently held by Muhyiddin.

‘Rally Support’

"Najib’s camp seems to be confident that support for him is strong," said Norshahril Saat, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore who has studied Malaysian politics for a decade. "But some steps may raise doubts such as attempts to prevent Muhyiddin from speaking. Current leaders may feel Muhyiddin could use this year’s assembly to rally support to topple Najib."

Muhyiddin was among those in 2008 who led calls for Najib’s predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to step down and hand over power earlier than planned, which he did. Najib’s supporters know Muhyiddin’s potential, Norshahril said.

"UMNO AGMs are about charging into the next battle," said Gobind Singh, an opposition lawmaker with the Democratic Action Party. "This time, it’s awkward -- the deputy is not allowed to speak and they keep going on about unity. If you ask me, UMNO and Najib are on shaky ground."

In a speech to supporters Monday night, Muhyiddin called for term limits on UMNO’s presidency, saying "absolute power corrupts." There are no such restrictions currently. Najib should leave his position as prime minister until investigations on the donations are completed, Muhyiddin also said. Mahathir, who spoke at the same event in Kuala Lumpur, said he only wants to topple Najib and not the government.

Political Liability

Najib’s biggest risk would be if party chiefs decide he’s become a liability to lead them into the next election, especially after the coalition lost the popular vote for the first time in 2013 as non-Malay voters deserted it. To be removed, more than half the division chiefs or two-thirds of UMNO’s decision-making body must agree to call an extraordinary meeting. At the meeting, two-thirds of those who attend would need to vote for his ouster.

"UMNO has evolved into a machine concerned with the distribution of interests," Oh said. "If those interests are taken care of, Najib has nothing to worry about. In fact, he will be leading UMNO to contest the next general election." 

Mahathir, 90, alluded to a system of patronage within the party on his blog on Nov. 30.

"Support for Najib may earn favors for specific people today" but if Barisan Nasional loses, that would be moot, he said in a post addressed to party members and grassroots leaders. "On the other hand, if Najib were to resign from being the UMNO president and prime minister, most likely UMNO will recover and BN will win" the next election, Mahathir said.

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