THE opposition, naturally, has been making hay out of the goings-on at 1MDB, a Malaysian state-owned investment fund. Over the past few months it took a road show, complete with snazzy slides on shell companies and international transfers, to rural areas to explain how almost $4bn of taxpayers’ money was siphoned out of the firm—quite a lot of it, American investigators say, by Najib Razak, the prime minister. But in the two years since the scandal first broke, Mr Najib has worked assiduously to bury it, while purging opponents and distracting voters. He now looks ready to call—and win—an election.
Mr Najib does not dispute that roughly $700m entered his personal bank accounts shortly before the previous election, in 2013. But he says it was a gift from an unnamed Saudi royal, and that most of it was returned. (The donor, Mr Najib’s allies say, was Prince Turki bin Abdullah, who was just arrested for alleged corruption.) America’s Justice Department, however, says the money was looted from 1MDB.
America, Switzerland and Singapore have conducted investigations into 1MDB. In theory, Malaysia has too. But the only person convicted in Malaysia in relation to the scandal is an opposition politician who leaked parts of the auditor-general’s investigation because the government declared it an official secret. Mr Najib fired the attorney-general for pursuing the matter, and then other senior members of his party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), when they protested.
Although prosecutors show no interest in the billions stolen from 1MDB, they have thrown the book at the opposition. Anwar Ibrahim, a leader of Pakatan Harapan (PH), an opposition coalition, has been put behind bars for sodomy (a crime in Malaysia), on flimsy evidence. Later this month the government will oppose a suit calling for his release. Meanwhile another senior figure in PH, Lim Guan Eng, the chief minister of the state of Penang, conveniently faces two sets of corruption charges (he is accused of buying a house at an artificially low price). Two leaders of an opposition party in the state of Sabah, set up by a former vice-president of UMNO sacked as a minister for complaining about 1MDB, have also been scooped up in a recent corruption probe.
Piety before propriety
Meanwhile UMNO has positioned itself as the defender of Islam, the faith of the Malay majority. This worries ethnic-Chinese and -Indian voters, the largest minority groups. Mr Najib is courting a conservative Islamic party as a possible new member of his ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional. It supports public caning and other harsh punishments.
When a launderette in the state of Johor put up a sign in September that read “For Muslim customers only”, Mr Najib, the head of a multi-ethnic coalition, kept mum. Instead, the local sultan, who is the head of the Muslim faith in the state, rebuked the owners for discriminating against minorities. Last month he and the country’s eight other sultans, who take it in turns to serve as head of state, released an unusual statement deploring growing Muslim intolerance as “beyond all acceptable standards of decency”.
Gerrymandering will also help Mr Najib. At the last election, although the opposition won 51% of the vote, it only secured 40% of the 222 seats in parliament. The election commission, with government-appointed members, has proposed boundaries for the next contest which will see even more of those who usually vote for the opposition, such as the ethnic-Chinese, crammed into huge constituencies, many of them urban. In practice this means their votes count for less than those of Malays in sparsely populated rural constituencies, who tend to favour UMNO. The state of Selangor, controlled by an opposition party, has challenged the new boundaries; a decision in the past week by the federal court allows them to stand everywhere else.
Mr Najib is also showering voters with cash. The 280bn ringgit ($66bn) budget for 2018, announced late last month, cuts taxes for more than 2m people. It also provides bonuses to some 1.6m civil servants which will be paid in two instalments—the first in January and the second in June—with the election likely to fall between the two. Billions will be set aside for rural infrastructure too.
Not everything is going the prime minister’s way. The PH coalition has been boosted by the inclusion of a new party, Bersatu, founded by Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister and head of UMNO for more than two decades. It signed up around 200,000 members in just a few months.
Confronted with a strengthening opposition, Mr Najib might choose to hold the election sooner, rather than later. But a vote in the next two months would probably coincide with seasonal flooding in rural areas, which might both suppress the vote and make the voters who do turn out irritable. A short delay could avoid this. But the prime minister will not want to wait for long, given that Mr Anwar may walk free as early as April. The sweet spot may come after Chinese New Year in February. For those opposed to Mr Najib, however, the outcome may be bitter.