THE big question after the US Department of Justice (DoJ) filed its latest suit to reclaim billions of ringgit allegedly stolen from state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) is this: Will the opposition be able to exploit the issue and hurt Najib Razak at the polls?
Political pundits interviewed by The Malaysian Insight agree that the disclosure of how money was diverted from the state-owned company to fund the lifestyle of the rich and famous is a combustible issue and can influence voters.
This is especially true for young and first-time voters, who traditionally do not have any strong party affiliation and who obtain their news from the Internet.
But any discussion on the likely impact of the DoJ suit on Malaysian politics must carry a caveat: much hinges on the state of the opposition alliance.
A united Pakatan Harapan can take the 1MDB issue to the ground and exploit it for political gain. But in its current fractious and broken state, it is arguable that many of the opposition politicians have the appetite for anything but to squabble over positions in PH.
Ibrahim Suffian of the pollster Merdeka Center said: “If the Opposition can get their act together and exploit this, then it can adversely affect public sentiment towards the ruling party. This will rekindle the fading memory over 1MDB and remind people of the excessive irregularities.”
Dr Wong Chin Huat, head of the Penang Institute political and social analysis section, agreed that a unified, cohesive PH-driven campaign about 1MDB can weaken Umno’s grip on the Malay vote.
“If Umno’s party machinery and ministers get bogged down explaining about 1MDB, then you take the momentum away from them, ” he said, adding that putting the party and Najib under the spotlight over the DoJ disclosures could sap the spirit and energy of the Umno rank and file.
The DoJ on Thursday filed a third suit to seize another US$540 million (RM2.3 billion) in assets it says was bought with money stolen from 1MDB. This brings the total allegedly misappropriated from the state investor fund to US$4.5 billion.
The first suit was in July 2016, when the DoJ moved to seize assets worth more than US$1 billion worth of stolen 1MDB money was used to buy high-end art and properties.
This time, the DoJ claims that the money was, among other things, used to purchase a 22-carat pink diamond pendant and necklace for the “Malaysian Official 1’s wife” worth US$27.3 million.
Cabinet minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan had admitted in September last year that Malaysian Official 1 refers to Najib. However, he insisted that Najib was not being investigated.
Hisomuddin Bakar of the Ilham Centre said the 1MDB scandal had traction among first-time Malay voters and those in the middle class, both of whom get their news from the Internet and social media.
The trend among first-time voters is hard to predict, as seen in political developments in the United States and United Kingdom, said Hisomuddin.
“But generally, they are anti-establishment and are not loyal to any particular party,” he said, adding that first-time voters are expected to make up one third of all voters in the next general election.
It’s also a big issue among the Malay middle class, who experience first-hand how the scandal has ruined the country’s image and sapped investor confidence in Malaysia.
“You travel overseas and you get people asking you why is Najib still the PM even though he has this huge scandal hanging over him,” said Hisomuddin.
Wong of Penang Institute is certain that the latest Justice Department civil suit and the fresh round of negative publicity around the world will convince Najib to push back the general election to 2018.
“He is not a gambler. So he may wait till next year to call the election, ” he said.
Smart money was Najib seeking a new mandate this year to take advantage of the dysfunction in the opposition and his seemingly unmatched strength in Umno.
In Putrajaya, the thinking is that this latest DoJ suit will do little to push the political needle in Malaysia because all the anger over 1MDB is already reflected in approval ratings.
Also, Najib’s team believes that what will return Najib to office is an electoral understanding between Umno and PAS, the two parties with the biggest claim to Malay voters.