Mahathir's Son Ousted as Malaysia Premier Tightens Grip on Power

  • Mukhriz Mahathir resigns as chief minister of Kedah State
  • Najib has fired detractors, silenced critics in past months

The son of a former Malaysian leader was removed as chief minister of a northern state, indicating Prime Minister Najib Razak is tightening his grip on power after a months-long funding scandal.

Mukhriz Mahathir. Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

Mukhriz Mahathir. Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg

Mukhriz Mahathir announced his resignation as the head of Kedah’s government, saying he did not have the backing of a majority of lawmakers. He will be replaced by Ahmad Bashah Mohd Hanipah, the deputy chair of Najib’s ruling party in the state.

Along with his father Mahathir Mohamed, Mukhriz has become the public face of a campaign against Najib. Their criticism has centered on Najib’s management of the economy, revelations of a $681 million private donation to Najib from the Saudi royal family, and concerns over the finances of troubled government investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

“The actual reason for removing me is because of my criticisms against the prime minister, which he himself has admitted,” Mukhriz said in a statement read out to reporters. “The criticism is about the 1MDB scandals and the 2.6 billion ringgit donations and the impact of cost of living on people arising from GST,” he said, referring to a Goods and Services Tax.

The purge of Mukhriz suggests Najib has further coalesced his hold within the ruling United Malays National Organisation, where he retains the support of the bulk of divisional chiefs. Since coming to power in 2009, Najib has moved to shore up the party’s key support base -- ethnic Malays -- by increasing handouts and backing policies that give the group preferential access to such things as education.

Mahathir has repeatedly said Najib must resign or UMNO, which has governed since independence in 1957, risks losing the next election. As the country’s longest-serving leader, Mahathir wielded considerable influence for decades, although his sway has faded in recent years.

Mukhriz faced a lack of confidence in his leadership and there were concerns that better preparations were needed for the party to retain Kedah in the next election, Najib’s office said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday.

‘Work Together’

“The prime minister believes that the party and government must be disciplined and work together as a united team to combat the economic and security challenges Malaysia currently faces,” his office said. “Kedah UMNO have demonstrated their support for these principles of party unity and discipline.”‎

The removal of Mukhriz “can be read as Najib further consolidating his position within UMNO and from his party citadel,” said Clive Kessler, a sociology professor at the University of New South Wales who has studied Malaysian politics for 50 years.

“The logic of Najib’s situation is that he must go and keep going after these short term victories to hold things together, no matter what the longer term cost and implications may be,” Kessler said. If he stays on until the next election due by 2018, “he will win handsomely.”

Saudi Donation

Najib has weathered months of attacks over the $681 million that appeared in his private bank accounts before the 2013 general election, which UMNO won despite losing the popular vote for the first time as non-Malays deserted it. Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali concluded last week there was no evidence of wrongdoing and the money was a private donation, of which $620 million was later returned.

Najib has also silenced critics and removed detractors, dumping his deputy in July after Muhyiddin Yassin stepped up calls for clarity on 1MDB and its investments. The government replaced the attorney general co-heading a task force probing an alleged money trail in the funding scandal.

The actions of the regency council, which represents the Sultan of Kedah -- the current King under a constitutional arrangement -- also point to the growing power of the country’s royalty who are regarded as the official guardians of Islam.

The council took the unusual step of interviewing almost every state lawmaker to gauge support for Mukhriz before coming to their decision. In the past, regency councils and sultans would generally just consent to recommendations for federal and state government appointments.

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