Najib Razak is still popular among Malaysians despite his role in the 1MDB heist. Photo: Facebook

SINGAPORE – To those who celebrated the downfall of Malaysia’s graft-tainted and since criminally-convicted former premier Najib Razak at 2018’s watershed election, heralded at the time as a democratic new beginning, the results of the bellwether state election in Melaka on November 20 are sobering.

The ex-prime minister, despite being virtually synonymous with the globe-spanning multi-billion dollar the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, was the political face of the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition’s resounding victory over the weekend, clinching a supermajority in the state legislature by capturing 21 of 28 seats.

Analysts see the decisive win for Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the lynchpin of the BN coalition, as a sign that the historic ruling party could go on to once again dominate national politics after the upcoming general election, which is not due until 2023 but is widely expected to be held in the latter half of next year or even earlier.

The results are also being seen as proof that Najib, who governed Malaysia from 2009 to 2018, has shaken off the taint of graft he has always adamantly denied and retained his popularity with voters even after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for corruption and other charges last year, a verdict he has appealed while mounting a political comeback.

UMNO’s thumping victory may sound like good news for Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who came to power three months ago after his predecessor Muhyiddin Yassin resigned amid political turmoil, but analysts say the outcome could complicate his efforts to sustain a delicate political balance between grudging allies supporting him at the federal level.

Saturday’s polls saw three-way contests between the UMNO-led BN coalition, Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance, and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) led by veteran opposition chief Anwar Ibrahim. Ismail is relying on support from all three major alliances to shore up his razor-thin governing majority and avoid a fate similar to his predecessor.

Muhyiddin was forced to resign after just 18 months in office when a UMNO faction led by Najib and party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi withdrew support for his premiership. Ismail, who was Muhyiddin’s ally and deputy premier, led a separate UMNO faction as a party vice president that opted to maintain a tactical alliance between BN and PN.

Ismail Sabri Yaakob leaves his house to take the oath of office as prime minister on August 21. He could face a general election test sooner than later. Photo: AFP / Malaysian Information Department

Both Muhyiddin’s and Najib’s respective camps have since regrouped to support Ismail. But even with BN and PN being erstwhile allies in the federal government, the rival ethnic Malay Muslim-led coalitions faced off in Melaka with the latter suffering a humiliating defeat, winning just two seats despite losing several contests by narrow margins.

“This is obviously not the kind of result Ismail Sabri most desired. This could be gleaned from the fact that he didn’t even actively campaign for UMNO in Melaka,” said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, pointing out that the premier made just one visit to the state during nearly two weeks of campaigning.

“His ideal results would have been UMNO winning the most seats among all parties and coalitions, but not enough to clinch an outright majority in the state assembly. In that case, he would once again be the consensus builder who can pull together BN and PN, and perhaps even PH, to form a coalition government, just as he did at the federal level.”

Such an outcome would have allowed Ismail to “once again emerge as an indispensable top leader,” said Oh, who is a former aide to Najib. “As of now, however, most of the political credit is being claimed by Najib, who admittedly had spearheaded the UMNO Melaka campaign by crisscrossing the state and rooting for the candidates.”

Malaysia’s premier continues to be awkwardly seen as affiliating himself more with Muhyiddin’s PN rather than the “mainstream faction” in UMNO “which mounts the greatest though subtle challenge to his rule,” Oh added. “Ismail’s greatest worry is this faction might ride on the overwhelming Melaka victory and eventually insinuate to depose him soon.”

Wong Chen, an opposition lawmaker with Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), agreed that the poll results undermined the premier while strengthening Najib’s hand. “This election shows UMNO doesn’t need to be nice to PN. There is no room for a peacemaker when UMNO is so powerful. This is a problem for Ismail Sabri,” he told Asia Times.

Observers had described the campaign for Melaka as a battle between two former prime ministers, Najib and Muhyiddin, both of whom have telegraphed their intentions to return to the top of Malaysian politics. As a relatively new entity formed last year following the collapse of the PH government, PN had been eager to prove its electoral mettle.

But following its defeat, Muhyiddin reiterated plans to contest under the PN banner in the upcoming elections and said he does not have plans to re-join UMNO, which expelled him in 2016 for criticizing party leadership over the 1MDB scandal. The former premier said PN’s “principled” anti-corruption stance means that it can offer better governance.

Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin wearing a face mask, face shield and rubber gloves arriving at a quarantine facility for people with the Covid-19 coronavirus at the Malaysia Agro Exposition Park (MAEPS) in Serdang, outside Kuala Lumpur, January 19, 2021. Photo: AFP / Aqilah Mazlan / Malaysia Department of Information

“It is widely understood in political circles that Muhyiddin can’t make a comeback. His time is over,” said James Chin, inaugural director of the University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute. “It is also widely understood that there’s no way PN can win on their own, especially if BN and PN don’t work together. PN cannot afford to leave the federal government now.”

Saturday’s polls were also seen as a clear referendum on opposition leader Anwar’s leadership. Though PH won five seats in the state, Anwar’s PKR suffered a total wipeout, losing each of the 11 seats it contested. Following a string of consecutive political setbacks that have dented Anwar’s credibility, analysts see PKR’s future at a crossroads.

Cracks in Malaysia’s main opposition coalition were on full display ahead of the vote, with PH’s component parties speaking out against Anwar’s strategy of fielding UMNO defectors who brought down the BN-led Melaka government last month in a failed bid to form a PH-led state government as opposition candidates in the state election.

Several PH leaders, including those from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), have expressed reservations about the ethics of embracing party-hopping “frogs” as they are derisively known. Anthony Loke, the DAP’s national organizing committee secretary, said the strategy of fielding defectors had contributed to the coalition’s defeat.

“We stood up for anti-[party] hopping. One of the issues is that PH fielded candidates from the other party, which undermined the anti-hopping message. That has affected our credibility,” Loke told Asia Times. “The opposition’s failure cannot be pinpointed at one leader. The entire system and culture were to blame.”

Calls are nonetheless rising for Anwar to take responsibility for the loss in Melaka and resign as PH’s chairman, with critics citing what they see as his record of questionable decisions and dubious strategies to gain a political edge, such as last year’s failed gambit to depose Muhyiddin by forming a government with corruption-tainted UMNO legislators.

“It would indeed be timely for Anwar to step down and make way for a set of new leaders to present themselves in time for the next general election,” said analyst Oh. “However, it would appear that Anwar is in no hurry to do so, but instead has been brooding since the Melaka loss to come up with yet another set of excuses to stay on.”

“Anwar has basically made just too many political mistakes,” said academic Chin. “I think there will be a lot of push especially from outside the party to replace him, but internally I think there’s no chance of him being replaced inside PKR itself unless he steps down voluntarily, which he is not going to do.

“Anwar has structured the party in such a way that basically nobody else can take over. He’s made sure that there’s no successor around or people capable of taking over his position,” he added. Chin, a foremost expert on East Malaysian politics, said PKR was on course to be “wiped out completely” in the Sarawak state election likely to be held in December.

Malaysia’s People’s Justice Party president Anwar Ibrahim in a file photo. Photo: Zahim Mohd / NurPhoto via AFP

Situated on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, Melaka has a racial composition and urban-rural split comparable to the national averages, with more than 60% of voters from the Malay Muslim majority, making the weekend’s election a unique strategic barometer of political sentiment ahead of the next general election.

The state, whose port city was a Portuguese colony for 130 years, was a UMNO stronghold until PH for the first time won power there in 2018. When PH’s federal government collapsed due to defections in early 2020, so too did its state government in Melaka. Another round of defections brought down the successor BN state government in October.

Curbs on electoral campaigning were in place due to Covid-19 with political rallies and even walkabouts banned, though Najib and other top politicians still made rounds in the state, snapping selfies and mingling with voters at kopitiams, or coffee houses. Voter turnout was approximately 65.8%, below the average state turnout of around 75% and above.

Saturday’s polls ultimately proved that Najib’s camp can not only maneuver to bring down prime ministers but also deliver thumping electoral majorities for UMNO. While Najib’s political future will in theory be determined by the courts – not voters – those close to the former premier are more bullish than ever about his comeback prospects. 

Farhan Shafee, a lawyer and son of Najib’s lead defense counsel Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, opined that with Najib having once again cemented his position within UMNO with an electrifying victory in Melaka, “Ismail would be unlikely to resist Najib becoming prime minister” and “might be prepared to hand over the position.”

“Although once you’re in the seat of power, your intentions can change,” he told Asia Times.