Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak has weathered political storms and an economic downturn to emerge as the front-runner in upcoming elections. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad
Malaysia's prime minister Najib Razak has weathered political storms and an economic downturn to emerge as the front-runner in upcoming elections. Photo: Reuters/Bazuki Muhammad

Last year, when the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it would launch investigations into the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billion dollar scandal, presumed suspect No 1 Prime Minister Najib Razak’s prospects looked especially bleak.

Now, less than a year later, Najib has slipped the political noose as investigations have been dropped at home and is now preparing to win yet another general election, likely to be held in the second half of this year or early 2018.

Najib, Malaysia’s sixth prime minister and seventh president of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the premier party in government since the country achieved independence, has seemingly managed to gain the upper hand from his major political challengers.

The imprisonment of popular opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on widely viewed as trumped up charges in 2015 has effectively broken up the Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition of parties which almost defeated Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in 2013.

Najib has split the opposition in part through appeals to political Islam, seen in his courtship of the Islamist Pan Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS). PAS had served as the Pakatan Rakyat’s grass roots core, though other alliance members distanced themselves from PAS’ many hardline views.

Pulling PAS into his fold, Najib publicly supported the tabling of a Shariah law bill in parliament last year above the protests of opposition parties. In a November 29 local television interview, Najib said it was the “responsibility” of all Muslims to support the controversial bill.

Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration on May 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Mohd Rasfan

On May 11, during UMNO’s 71st anniversary celebration in front of more than 50,000 supporters, Najib said his party’s new ties with PAS represented “mature politics” for the benefit of the people. At the de facto campaign event, Najib called for the crowd’s support at the next election, stating repeatedly UMNO’s readiness and intention to win.

“Everyone here has come from all over the country. I would like to ask you, are we strong enough? Are we ready? Can we dissolve parliament tomorrow? This is our strength. UMNO’s extraordinary strength,” Najib said to the cheering crowd.

On the same day, PAS announced it had formally cut ties with Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR), a realignment that will inevitably cost the opposition votes among conservative Malay Muslim voters at the next polls.

The biggest political threat to Najib’s re-election now is arguably his former mentor and boss, ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad, whose new Bersatu party joined the opposition pact Pakatan Harapan earlier this year.

Mahathir has struggled to put his party in a strong electoral position due to a possible multi-corner fight with PAS, as his party looks to win the same grass roots Malay votes traditionally secured and contested by UMNO and PAS. Malays make up around 60% of the country’s population, with ethnic Chinese accounting for 25%.

Former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad during an interview at Putrajaya, Malaysia, March 30, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Lai Seng Sin

Mahathir has emerged as Najib’s most vocal critic despite backing his rise to the premiership in 2009. In a dramatic twist, Mahathir has even made amends with Anwar, whom he sacked as his deputy prime minister and finance minister in 1998 and later oversaw his first imprisonment on sodomy charges, a crime in Muslim majority Malaysia.

The 91-year-old former premier has seen his main legacy – the so-called “Vision 2020”, which aimed to raise Malaysia to “developed world” status by 2020 and served as UMNO’s guiding policy since the 1990s – recently supplanted by Najib’s National Transformation 2050 (TN50) scheme.

“From now on TN50 is our lucky charm. Let the old legacy pass. The future of Malaysia, we recreate,” Najib said upon tabling his 2017 budget to parliament in October.

Although without referring directly to Mahathir, Najib has acknowledged his former mentor’s state-led vision for national progress had many weaknesses, though, oddly, he said it would be wrong to say the initiative had failed to reach its lofty target.

Najib says TN50, in comparison, is a less aspirational and more specific approach to national development, one that will build on inputs from the grass roots population through nationwide consultations, including with youth.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (L) links hands with China’s Premier Li Keqiang during an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Kuala Lumpur, November 22, 2015. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

It’s unclear, however, how much of the vision will rely on Chinese aid and investment. Najib has forged close relations with Beijing, a relationship that has helped in some measure to buffer the Malaysian economy from global volatility.

Those ties have also apparently helped Najib to survive the 1MDB scandal, which while now quiet at home is still at the center of several international money laundering probes. The state fund, created by Najib, racked up US$11 billion in debts before it started a restructuring program in 2015.

1MDB-owned Bandar Malaysia, the country’s largest ever real estate development project situated in a former military base, was set to be sold to a Chinese consortium but apparently fell through on May 3 due to failed payment obligations.

A construction worker talks on the phone in front of a 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) billboard in Kuala Lumpur, February 3, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Olivia Harris

It was unclear if the deal was discussed or revived when Najib and former 1MDB chief executive Arul Kanda Kandasamy traveled to Beijing this month for the One Belt, One Road summit. Najib was seen at the event with Wang Jianlin, owner of Dalian Wanda Group, who reportedly expressed a “desire” to participate in the stalled venture.

If the deal goes through, analysts say it will help Najib deflect expected opposition allegations of 1MDB mismanagement and corruption on the campaign trail. Importantly, much of the 1MDB-related criticism, while increasingly squelched by state pressure in mainstream media, is still being leveled at Najib over social media.

Despite having more than 3 million likes on Facebook and 3.4 million followers on his active Twitter account, not all Najib’s followers are his fans. A strategic media investment ahead of the polls, however, could be deployed to shift online messaging and perceptions.

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the nation in a National Day message in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su

UMNO-controlled Media Prima Berhad’s US$24 million purchase this month of Rev Asia, the country’s largest digital platform, has been viewed as more than just a business deal. With around 10.4 million unique visitors per day, the platform lags only Facebook and Google in online usage rates.

On May 16, Rev Asia’s published a fawning story that proposed Najib could be a popular food blogger by compiling all of his culinary photographs from his social media accounts – a lighthearted article that portrayed the national leader in a favorable, youthful light.

With around 22 million active social media users among the country’s 30 million population, that light touch propaganda will reach an ever wider audience ahead of the next polls. And with politics, economics and new media now all pointed in Najib’s favor, it’s increasingly hard to imagine who could outpace him and his party at the ballot box.