DESPITE lower approval ratings and being tainted by scandals, 2017 was a good year for Prime Minister Najib Razak. But 2018 is shaping up to be an even better one.
Analysts said if Najib leads the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to victory again in the 14th general election (GE14), he will be near invincible for the next five years.
And the possibility of a third term at the nation’s helm is there, said analyst Hisomuddin Bakar, as the opposition has failed to present itself as a united and convincing alternative to BN.
Najib’s biggest achievement is ensuring that PAS does not work with Pakatan Harapan (PH).
“His alliance with PAS ensures that the Malay seats will most likely fall into Umno’s hands,” said another political analyst James Chin.
This is because PAS will field candidates against PH and Umno leading to a split in anti-BN votes, said Chin. Such splits have historically benefitted BN.
Yet Najib still has several obstacles in his path to another electoral victory, said Hisomuddin of the independent polling firm Ilham Centre.
Top most among these is the significant anger from Malay Muslims – who form his traditional support base – towards his government for high inflation, weak wage growth and youth unemployment, he said.
Another is the many scandals coming out of federal land development authority Felda. There are 1.2 million Felda settlers in schemes that are spread out over 54 parliamentary constituencies.
These voters have also been historically loyal to Umno, BN’s lynchpin. But crushing debts from a replanting project and the many allegations of corruption in Felda and its subsidiaries have soured them towards the Malay party.
“Najib also has to contend with voters of the reformasi generation between 1998 and 1999. Those who had rejected BN in the 1999 general election are now in their 50s and 60s,” said Hisomuddin.
“These urban Malay voters rejected BN in 2013. The question is whether this wave of rejection can spread to the rural areas.”
Better than even 2016
Chin, of University of Tasmania, termed Najib the “Teflon prime minister” after the popular coating in frying pans that do not make things stick.
The last favourability rating for Najib was measured by Time magazine, which said in May that it was below 40%.
According to Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, his approval rating was 65% when he took over in 2009.
In mid-2017, the Najib administration had to deal with the latest revelations from the United States probe into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal (1MDB).
Najib, who headed 1MDB’s board of advisers, has denied all wrongdoing.
The US Department of Justice estimated that US$4.5 billion was allegedly siphoned off from the state firm and used to buy luxury properties, a yacht, artworks and jewellery.
Yet despite a nationwide roadshow to revive the scandal in Malaysian minds, Najib was still able shrug off these allegations, said Chin.
His visit to the US and meeting with President Donald Trump silenced critics who said he was a wanted man there.
“Najib really understands how Malays think. He knows that no matter how bad a scandal, if you drag it out long enough, Malay anger will cool down,” said Hisomuddin.
Although Najib is safe from prosecution now, there is still a chance that other personalities in the probe could strike a deal with the US authorities and implicate Najib, said Chin.
Domestically, he is invincible in Umno, as all his critics, including former mentor-turned-nemesis Dr Mahathir Mohamad have left to form Bersatu.
An Umno official said the party has recovered from the splintering of Umno and Bersatu starting in 2016.
“The exodus has stopped. In fact, we are now seeing Bersatu people returning to Umno after being disappointed with the party,” said the party official on condition of anonymity.
But risks still exist for Najib’s march into a third term.
Although working-class Malays are feeling squeezed by cost-of-living pressures, Hisomuddin said, surveys among them showed that it is unclear whether this anger will translate into a vote against Najib and BN.
“When you ask them, they say they cannot live under Najib’s economy. But they also distrust Dr Mahathir.”
The 92-year-old is chairman of PH and could be named its prime minister candidate. Despite Dr Mahathir’s influence, he has not been able to rally PH behind him.
“At this point, we don’t know which factor will dominate them when they vote,” said Hisomuddin.
Although the economy is expected to be slower in the next six months, as investors wait for the elections, Chin said a depreciation in the ringgit’s value could also hurt Najib.
The ringgit has plunged from RM3 to US$1 in 2013 to about RM4. It has made food imports dearer and increased prices in the local market.
If inflation peaks again, it could be tipping point that will lead rural voters to reject BN.
“The danger here is another round of rapid depreciation of the ringgit. There is not much Bank Negara Malaysia can do since its reserves are down,” said Chin.
“On those things Najib can directly control – the Election Commission, Umno and PAS –s he is super strong but on external stuff, such as ringgit and overseas 1MBD investigations, he is still in political danger.”