Former premier Najib Razak and current UMNO leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi share a laugh in a file photo. Image: Twitter

SINGAPORE – Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is at risk of losing his progressive support base amid rising perceptions the leader is failing to live up to his anti-graft credentials.

The perception shift comes as state prosecutors controversially dropped criminal charges against his deputy premier, sparking criticism that Anwar’s government is cracking down selectively on corruption.

Activists who had long supported Anwar’s reformist agenda were already peeved that his government has used laws that curb free speech and stifle dissent to appease and please politically powerful conservative forces.

But Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s release from multiple graft charges marks to many the crossing of a political red line, one where Anwar has appeared to prioritize power over principle.

Indeed, many saw the move as the political price to be paid for securing support from Zahid’s scandal-tainted United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party and Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which are crucial to sustaining the government’s parliamentary majority.

Opposition lawmaker Wan Ahmad Fayhsal said the move marked the “collapse” of Anwar’s reformasi struggle. “Their raison d’etre for the past 25 years was all about good governance, anti-corruption,” he told Asia Times. “It has gone down the drain. They’ve sacrificed it all to save one man. This government might survive, but the infrastructure of their support is crumbling.”

Malaysian prosecutors’ decision to drop the cases against Zahid has sparked speculation and scrutiny about the government’s stance on corruption cases against other UMNO leaders such as jailed former prime minister Najib Razak, who Zahid has continued to defend while in office.

On September 4, Malaysian prosecutors withdrew 47 corruption charges of criminal breach of trust, bribery and money laundering against Zahid. The Kuala Lumpur High Court handed down a discharge not amounting to an acquittal, or DNAA after the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) opted to stop pursuing the case.

UMNO President Zahid Hamidi is seen during a protest outside the National Mosque against insults to Prophet Mohammad and threats towards Muslim in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 1, 2019. Photo: Asia Times Files / Adli Ghazali / Anadolu Agency via AFP

That is despite a court ruling in January 2022 that the prosecution had established a prima facie case against UMNO president and BN chairman Zahid, who was ordered to enter his defense. The move prompted an outcry from civil society and senior lawyers who scoffed at Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution’s explanation of the discharge as a “court decision.”

The AGC said the prosecution’s application for Zahid to be granted a DNAA on all his charges was made based on “cogent” reasons. It was the last major act of Attorney-General Idrus Harun prior to his retirement on September 6. Malaysia’s constitution grants the AG full authority to institute, conduct or discontinue any proceedings for an offence in civil court.

Anwar has strongly denied any involvement in the AGC’s decision. “The AG had full authority and he gave his reasons. It is the AG’s decision, and I can’t interfere,” he was quoted as saying. Prosecutors had told the court that the DNAA request was made for several reasons, including to allow the national anti-corruption agency to conduct further investigations into the case.

Debate over the dual roles of Malaysia’s AG, who is both the government’s chief legal adviser and lead criminal prosecutor, has since risen to the fore. Amid the furor over Zahid’s discharge, the government has announced two special task forces to expedite the process of splitting the AG’s roles as part of promised institutional reforms, but no timeline has been given for its implementation.

The political and optical damage has already been done. Zahid’s discharge has cost Anwar’s government its slim two-thirds majority in parliament, with Syed Saddiq Abdul Rahman, president of the youth-based Malaysian United Democratic Alliance (MUDA), withdrawing his support for the government bloc in protest against what he views as the “beginning of normalizing corruption.”  

MUDA said it would join the opposition as a third force and support the government if it needs a two-thirds majority vote to carry out institutional reforms. With only one lawmaker, the move will not impact the government’s stability, but the loss of its coveted parliamentary supermajority is nonetheless seen as a blow to the ruling coalition.

James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, described Zahid’s discharge as “purely a play to maintain power,” telling Asia Times that Anwar “didn’t really have a choice.” “He was forced to do this because knows that if Zahid goes down, another UMNO leader will pull the entire BN component of 30 MPs out of his government and he’ll be finished.”

Anwar and Zahid are known to share cordial personal ties, despite leading coalitions that were once bitter rivals and a storied history owing to Anwar’s past UMNO membership. Partnering with the reformist Pakatan Harapan (PH) was seen as a bitter pill for the once-hegemonic UMNO, such that observers believe other senior party leaders could prefer to align with the pro-Malay Muslim opposition bloc if given the chance. 

The political ramifications of Zahid’s case are still unclear. Anwar’s PH-BN alliance managed to win two by-elections in Johor state on September 9, despite the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) increasing its vote share in line with national trends. But UMNO is known to command a more loyal following in the southern state, where it was founded, making it an unreliable barometer.

Chin, who is also the inaugural director of the Asia Institute of Tasmania, said the unity coalition win should not be taken as a sign that voters by and large agree with Zahid’s discharge, noting that Johor’s influential monarchy had also signaled support for the PH-BN pact and that this was a factor. “People understand it’s about political survival more than anything else,” he said.

Political survivor: Anwar Ibrahim is doing whatever it takes to keep his unity government afloat. Image: Facebook

Former UMNO leader Khairy Jamaluddin, meanwhile, opined that if he were a government strategist he would argue that the Johor by-elections marked “an important victory because the issue of Zahid’s DNAA [had] no effect at all” on the electoral outcome. “I would say that this is proof that the people don’t care, and still support the coalition, and the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim,” he said.

Khairy, a former health minister who started a political podcast after being purged from UMNO earlier this year over his criticism of Zahid’s rule as party president, had earlier remarked that if BN had wanted to release its corruption-tainted leaders to push back against the rising popularity of PN’s ethnic Malay nationalism, Najib’s release would be more impactful than Zahid’s.

“If you’re going to kitchen-sink, kitchen-sink the whole thing and let Najib out – he will bring more value to you [than Zahid]. You’ve already ended the innocence of Malaysia. Grant amnesty,” said Khairy sarcastically in a recent podcast, in reference to incarcerated Najib’s reputation as a star political campaigner for BN relative to Zahid’s poor electoral track record as UMNO chief.

Zahid faced calls to step down in the wake of his party’s worst-ever general election performance in November. UMNO took another beating at state elections in August, where an estimated seven in 10 ethnic Malay voters across six states backed PN, with UMNO clinching only 19 of the 108 seats it contested, underscoring its decline as a national political force.

Najib, by comparison, had deftly campaigned and harnessed social media to build up a loyal support base prior to his imprisonment last August, when the appellate court unanimously upheld a guilty conviction on charges related to a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), making him the country’s first-ever former premier to be imprisoned.

“The biggest rumor circulating in KL [Kuala Lumpur] is that plans are afoot to get Najib out, which would be a much bigger deal than what happened with Zahid. Najib is a totally different kettle of fish,” said Chin. “It’s true that many people in UMNO, including some people in Anwar’s camp, believe that Najib, when it comes to his political skills, is actually way ahead of Zahid.”

Pro-Najib voices have argued that Anwar has more to gain than lose politically by acquiescing to calls made by UMNO’s top leadership and grassroots to release the former premier to boost support for the unity alliance, though doing so would undoubtedly cause a backlash among PH’s multiracial and mainly liberal supporters. Najib’s fate is by no means Anwar’s decision alone.

Analysts, however, see Anwar wielding significant influence as a member of a committee evaluating Najib’s potential pardon. Malaysia’s constitutional monarch has sole discretion to grant pardons for most offenses, though is traditionally meant to act on the advice of a Pardons Board. There are also complex political dimensions surrounding the opaque decision-making process.

“Zahid may understandably not want Najib released from jail, because if he is freed, he will be gunning to get his old jobs back (as both premier and party president). If Najib is released, it has to be in a way that he doesn’t threaten Zahid. It must also be in a way that Najib cannot gang up with the opposition as well, so it is not as simple as people think,” Chin opined.  

Najib’s lawyers confirmed on September 12 that prosecutors would not appeal the ex-premier’s acquittal in a separate graft case of audit tampering related to the now insolvent 1MDB, a move that has further fuelled perceptions of political interference. The AGC was earlier expected to appeal against the acquittal, which was handed down by the High Court in March.

Former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak leaves the courthouse in Kuala Lumpur on December 12, 2018 after being charged in court. Photo: Asia Times Files / AFP / Mohd Rasfan

The same court ruled to nullify four abuse of power charges against PN chairman and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin on August 15, describing them as “vague, flawed and unfounded.” Though the opposition chief was charged in March and – unlike Zahid – was acquitted and discharged, the AGC has confirmed it would appeal the High Court’s decision.

Muhyiddin still faces two counts of money laundering in the same case while his party has come under investigation for graft since losing at polls in November. The ex-premier denies wrongdoing and describes his case as a “political vendetta.”

His PN opposition bloc plans to hold a major rally in Kuala Lumpur on September 16 to protest the government’s handling of corruption cases.

“We firmly believe and we all know, since the role of AG and the prosecutor is still inseparable and under the jurisdiction of the minister of law and also the prime minister, we see all the charges against Muhyiddin as trumped-up political persecution and selective persecution, and that’s been proven by the court as an abuse of process,” said PN legislator Wan Ahmad.

Follow Nile Bowie on X at @NileBowie