Najib’s Party Elites Meet in Election Mode

  • Najib has strengthened grip on party after removing critics
  • Cost of living worries resonating among Najib’s Malay base

Najib Razak.

Photographer: Charles Pertwee/Bloomberg

Malaysia’s ruling elites gather this week in election mode, with Prime Minister Najib Razak seeking to portray his party as united and ready to take on the opposition at the ballot box.

Members of the United Malays National Organisation are meeting after a year that’s seen Najib secure his grip on power and sidestep political funding scandals. The group has indicated their annual assembly will focus on the next general election. While it doesn’t need to be held until mid-2018, there have been whispers it could come as early as March.

At stake is the unbroken rule since independence in 1957 of UMNO, the biggest actor in one of the longest-ruling coalitions in the world. While it secured strong wins in races earlier in 2016 and has benefited from opposition parties beset by policy differences and infighting, a slowing economy and voter concern about bread-and-butter issues highlights the need for UMNO to avoid complacency.

Rising living costs risk chipping away at support for Najib among ethnic Malays. And while the opposition has struggled, talk of a unified force led by Najib’s ally-turned-nemesis Mahathir Mohamad could see a more concerted effort to woo away those Malay voters, particularly in rural seats that have been UMNO heartlands for decades.

Divisional Chiefs

"The situation is fluid," said Mohamed Mustafa Ishak, a professor of politics and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia. He said the solution is for UMNO to address day-to-day issues more strongly including housing, unemployment and education -- matters that delegates are expected to raise at the assembly.

Najib told UMNO leaders in a private briefing on Tuesday to prepare the party machinery for elections that aren’t very far away, the Star reported, citing an official from the state of Perak.

Najib retains the backing of his party’s powerful division heads, the bulk of whom have stood by him in the past year. That’s even as his critics have tried to weaken Najib with attacks over the finances of state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., whose advisory board he chaired until recently and is at the center of global probes into alleged money laundering and embezzlement.

"Within UMNO, he is very much secure," Mustafa said. "There is no big challenge against him from within the party, as those who opposed him have been removed."

Still, the meeting this week may indicate whether there is any internal concern about Najib’s ability to win the next election. In the past year, even as many party leaders publicly pledged support, some privately expressed frustration over the scandal-hit premier and how he is perceived by voters.

Read more: A story on efforts to shore up the ruling party’s message in rural areas

Mohd Aznam Mohd Zin, an UMNO branch leader, said he firmly supports Najib as party president but has struggled to counter the opposition’s allegations against the premier at a grassroots level.

"As the branch chief, it’s my task to spread UMNO’s message in my area," said Aznam, who heads a branch in the capital Kuala Lumpur. "I would say 60 percent of the people I meet have fallen for the opposition’s propaganda" and those "duped" included UMNO members upset about rising living costs, he said. 

"The goods and service tax has really hit them hard, so I have to work harder, spend more time to convince them," said Aznam, adding that Najib would do well to provide more aid and subsidies to win over these groups.

Najib has already increased handouts to farmers, government workers and low-income Malaysians. In an interview published Monday by state news agency Bernama, the premier said he was aware that people were concerned about living costs, and the government was tackling that through measures such as cash payments and affordable housing.

Urban Voters

While the votes of rural and semi-urban areas are crucial for the broader Barisan Nasional coalition, analysts said urban voters were also not beyond Najib’s grasp. In the 2013 election, an analysis showed there were 125 rural seats and 54 semi-urban ones, of a total of 222.

"At the end of the day, the majority of the people want only one thing: better quality of life," said Faisal S. Hazis, head of the Centre for Asia Studies at the National University of Malaysia. "They want a transparent government that can offer efficient services."

The general assembly may see UMNO continue to "flirt" with opposition group Parti Islam se-Malaysia, to retain the support of Malays who are predominantly Muslim, said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies and former aide to the prime minister. 

Najib last year reached out to PAS and proposed the parties work to promote Islam’s doctrines. Although PAS’s allegiance remains unclear, ties between the two have become warmer, culminating in the Islamic party being given an opportunity to be heard in parliament this month for its motion to strengthen Shariah courts. The move has raised the ire of some component parties in Barisan Nasional.

The public can "expect to hear more calls for unity around Najib, and also vehement upholding of race and religion at the assembly," Oh said.

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