In order to understand the current state of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), it is necessary to understand how Najib managed to maintain his power and influence for all these years.
Nepotism is the name of the day; his “cash is king” approach—or profit inclined—has essentially cemented his acolytes in the higher tiers of his political party, many of whom are still active, and they form the “old guard” of UMNO.
Since the old guards are faithful supporters of Najib, they are naturally in the camp that is rallying to free Najib from his prison sentence. It is hard to function without their kingpin after all, and however corrupt Najib may be, it is undeniable that he still garners strong support and sympathy from the Malay-Muslim communities.
Although it will not win them any votes from the non-Malays and those who believe that Najib rightly deserves to be jailed for his graft, the old guard do not care.
The Cracks in the Coalition
In both Singaporean and Malaysian governments, the Prime Minister is the leader of the political party with the most seats in the parliament.
For instance, the People Action Party currently holds 83 seats out of 103. Since Lee Hsien Loong is the uncontested leader of PAP, he is also the de facto Prime Minister.
To understand more about Malaysian politics, watch this video until the end:
Compared to the past where UMNO was singularly dominant in the parliament, the current Malaysian government is ruled by a coalition of four political parties.
Due to Pakatan Harapan winning the majority in the 2018 elections, Barisan Nasional (BN—which is mainly composed of members from UMNO and Bersatu—lost its dominant position for the first time since Malaysia’s independence.
Alas, Pakatan Harapan, which was led by Mahathir, did not manage to hold its majority for long, since its power was gradually eroded by its opposition parties.
In the aftermath of the 2020 Malaysian political crisis, the Barisan Nasional returned to power in 2021, while being backed by the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition.
If it’s confusing, you probably haven’t watched the video above. Watch it first and everything will make sense.
So, while that occurred, ex-premier Najib Razak was sentenced to a 12-year jail term in July 2020, which effectively destroyed both his chances to run for a future parliament seat and the credibility of UMNO.
Hence, the current leader of UMNO, Zahid Hamidi, could not become the Prime Minister. The position was instead given to Muhyiddin Yassin, the chairman of PN and Bersatu.
If you have been keeping up with Malaysian politics, then you will know that Muhyddin was forced to resign in July 2021.
Again, the Prime Minister role is supposed to fall onto Zahid, but he is contending with his own corruption charges as well, so the position fell onto the former defence minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob instead.
The problem with this arrangement is Ismail Sabri is not the President of UMNO.
This shatters the traditional arrangement where the President of UMNO has always simultaneously been the Prime Minister.
The second problem arises from the cracks that have formed between UMNO and Bersatu.
After Muhyiddin, the old guards of UMNO no longer wish to ally with Bersatu, but Ismail Sabri is part of another faction that is calling for the ongoing power-sharing.
Plus, given that Ismail Sabri became Prime Minister precisely because of Najib and Zahid’s corruption scandals, he would have better odds seeking support from those with grievances about the nepotism that has corrupted the core of Malaysian politics.
As a matter of fact, Ismail Sabri is often dismissed as an “accidental prime minister”.
There are two roads lying before incumbent Prime Minister Ismail Sabri: either consolidate his power by completely diminishing the old guards or be shunted aside by the old guard if they are ever fully rehabilitated.
What Comes First: Party Elections or General Elections
In the UMNO constitution, it is stated that party elections must be held once every three years.
Since the last party election was in June 2018, it should naturally be held in June 2021, but UMNO’s supreme council decided to delay party elections by another 18 months to December 2022.
Concurrently, Zahid has also been pushing for the general election to take place earlier, by late this year, if at all possible, rather than just before September 2023.
You might be asking, why are they doing that?
Well, it is a two-prong plan.
After separating from Bersatu and absorbing the political candidates from East Malaysia, UMNO is confident that they can achieve a victory. Sure, the old guards will have the added job of forming a new ruling coalition after the election, but at least Bersatu will be out of the picture.
Secondly, since Zahid is at the helm of the current UMNO, it means that he can choose his own favourites (read: sycophants) as UMNO’s candidates in the general election.
Of course, UMNO’s accommodative faction tried to resist the delay in party elections, hoping that Ismail Sabri could use the chance to take his place as President of UMNO, then lead the party, along with Bersatu, in contesting the general election.
Although Ismail Sabri’s faction has failed to stop the old guards’ inner party machinations, they can still stall the general elections from taking place earlier.
Afterall, the general election only needs to take place before September 2023; there is still plenty of time.
Since his rival Zahid is in hot waters with his own corruption charges, which he will likely be convicted for and consequently lose his right to run for a parliament seat like Najib, he just needs to wait for the court to deliver their ruling.
Now that the judiciary is mostly independent and willing to punish political leaders for graft—as they have upheld Najib’s guilty verdict in all three levels of court—Zahid has every right to fear what is coming for him.
Furthermore, the old guards have every reason to double down on the victimisation of Najib, because saving him is equivalent to saving themselves too.
If Najib does not manage to get a royal pardon, if Najib cannot escape his corruption charges, what will become of them, when they are at the receiving end of the gavel?
Which brings us to Zahid’s third reason for wanting to push up the schedule of the general elections: he fears that he won’t be able to lead the party once his sentence comes down.
On the flip side, analysts opine that it would be crucial for Ismail Sabri to do everything in his power to drag it out until the court has passed its ruling on Zahid’s case.
This could mean using the tabling of Budget 2023 as his last salvo to prove that he deserves to remain as Prime Minister.
Otherwise, Ismail Sabri could dismiss the parliament immediately after the budget announcement is done, before calling for a snap poll in October or November.
A snap poll, or snap election, is when the head of government and/or ruling party calls for the dissolution of the government, usually done to exploit and capitalise on the opposition’s perceived weakness.
Historically, these early elections often result in increased majorities for the party that is already in power.
For Ismail Sabri, calling a snap poll is a gambit to increase his own supporters in the parliament while the resentment for Najib is still at its peak, so that he can win the party elections later.
Should Ismail Sabri win the general elections, his rise to UMNO’s presidency is almost certain to follow. He might even be able to restore UMNO’s single-party dominance by tamping down the electoral competitiveness and judicial independence.
However, if Ismail Sabri loses to the old guards, then Najib’s return to the political realm will become more possible.
Likelihood of Najib Receiving The Royal Pardon
Having said that, what are the chances of Najib receiving a royal pardon?
Although the answer is not an absolute “no”, it might take more time than one might think.
It should be noted that Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Malaysia’s constitutional monarch, has always been a stickler for due process, consultation and decision making.
As such, it would be “legally impossible” to give Najib a quick pardon, unless Agong wants his own impartiality brought to question. Monarch or not, he cannot contradict or ignore the fact that Najib was given a clear, guilty verdict at three levels of the judiciary, and that Najib has four more court cases to deal with.
In accordance with Malaysian law, the king can only grant a full pardon after consulting or receiving a recommendation from the Pardons Board.
Before either option can happen, Najib would have to serve a quarter of his jail sentence first and wait for his turn in the long line of prisoners that have already been interning for years.
Therefore, while the answer is “likely”, it will not be any time soon.
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