AS Malaysia’s next general elections looms, Prime Minister Najib Razak looks to be in a strong position as he defies predictions of a political fallout from the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) financial scandal, Channel News Asiareports.
Allegations of corruption in 1MDB, founded by Najib in 2009, launched calls from the opposition and civil society groups for him to step down. At least six countries, including the United States, Singapore and Switzerland, have launched investigations into the state investment arm accused of siphoning billions of dollars.
But Najib has defied his critics and forged on, sacking his critics within Umno and consolidating power within his party, ahead of the election which must be called by August.
“I think we will do much, much better in the next general elections coming soon compared to our chances in previous general elections,” Minister in the Prime Minister’s department, Abdul Rahman Dahlan told Channel NewsAsia.
“We will improve… we have the numbers and we are quite comfortable with the numbers. I think we will do better.”
An improving economy may also help boost Najib’s standing among voters; in the third quarter of the year, gross domestic product (GDP) grew at the fastest pace in more than three years, rising 6.2%, year-on-year.
Najib’s biggest critic, ex-prime minister and his former mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad, has also left Umno to form Bersatu, thus solidifying Najib’s position in the party.
Analysts say Najib has played his hand well in the aftermath of the 1MDB scandal.
“Many had underestimated Najib and wrongly compared him to (ex-PM) Badawi,” Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst with risk consultancy BowerGroupAsia, told Channel NewsAsia.
Najib took over from former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2009 after the latter stepped down following a poor performance by the ruling Umno in the 2008 general elections.
“Unlike Badawi, Najib has been resilient, ruthless and brave to make important decisions such as the sacking of his deputy (PM) Muhyiddin. I think the turning point for Najib was when Mahathir decided to leave Umno and eventually establish his own political party,” said Asrul.
“The departure of Mahathir alienated many of the fence-sitters in the party and strengthened Najib’s position in Umno, as many of his detractors decided to leave the party.”
Najib’s position was also strengthened when rhe eshuffled his cabinet in 2015, removing ministers opposed to his rule.
“Najib made a very decisive cabinet reshuffle in July 2015 wherein he removed all his detractors. By doing this, he solidified his grip both in Umno as well as on the administration,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).
“And he showed his detractors that he is not afraid to act if threatened. This was a major signal to those who might be thinking of challenging him.”
According to dozens of civil lawsuits filed by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) in the past two years, a total of US$4.5 billion (RM18.5 billion) was allegedly misappropriated from 1MDB by high-level fund officials and their associates.
In August, Bloomberg reported court filings by DOJ showing it was moving forward with a criminal investigation into money stolen from 1MDB that was allegedly used to acquire about US$1.7 billion worth of real estate, art, jewellery and other assets.
Najib, who has denied any wrongdoing, is not named in DOJ’s criminal and civil suits and Malaysia’s Attorney-General’s Office has cleared him of wrongdoing.
The prime minister’s trip to the US earlier this year has been hailed as a success, with Najib saying it is recognition of Malaysia as a significant global player.
“FDI (foreign direct investments) is booming, Americans are happy to be working with the Prime Minister not only on the economic front, but also on the security front,” said Rahman Dahlan.
Foreign direct investment in Malaysia rose 64%t year-on-year in 2016 to RM59 billion.
“Malaysia is considered to be a regional and international player. And we are not a pariah state as painted by the opposition,” Rahman Dahlan told Channel NewsAsia.
“And he (Najib) has been able to gain the respect and confidence of the major powers as you can see, despite the opposition saying this country is being vilified and ridiculed outside and around the world. Foreign leaders have been coming in droves to Malaysia.”
Analysts say much is at stake for Najib in the coming polls, as he will need to secure a strong victory to fend off possible challengers within Umno in the party’s coming general assembly.
“Najib’s position in Umno, post-election, is very dependent on how the party and the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition perform in the general election,” said Asrul of BowerGroupAsia.
“If Najib wins fewer parliamentary seats than the coalition won in 2013, then serious questions will be asked by the party and a possible leadership tussle may ensue,” he said.