Analyst: Najib has outplayed opposition, set to win GE14

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KUALA LUMPUR: Despite the 1MDB scandal and Dr Mahathir Mohamad leading Pakatan Harapan (PH), Prime Minister Najib Razak is politically safe and set to be reelected next year, a political scientist says.

In an article in East Asia Forum, James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania, said Najib was confident of winning 140 seats in the 14th general election (GE14) which must be held by August.

One reason is the “personal deal” Najib has struck with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang. Under Hadi, PAS has refused to join PH, citing the “omnipresent influence” of the Chinese-based DAP.

Chin said while Hadi claims DAP’s secret agenda is to stop the creation of an Islamic state and to promote Christianity, the more tangible reason is Hadi’s personal disgust with Mahathir for successfully oppressing PAS’ political agenda when he was in power.

Chin said Najib was playing along nicely with Hadi, including by promising that Umno, which he heads, will support PAS’ move to amend shariah laws to increase judicial penalties.

“The unwritten deal between Hadi and Najib is that once Najib wins the general election, Umno will adopt Act 355 (Shariah Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction Act 1965) as a government bill,” he said.

Most legal experts believe that once Act 355 is passed by Parliament, it will be the first step in altering Malaysia’s largely secular federal constitution.

“If the deal holds, PAS will field as many candidates as it can against Umno in the 110-20 largely rural Malay-majority seats.

“While on the outset this looks terrible for Najib, it must be understood in the context of Mahathir’s PH also going after these Malay seats. It is impossible to win a general election in Malaysia without winning a large proportion of Malay seats.

“Malaysia operates under a first-past-the-post electoral system, so with the opposition vote split between PAS and PH, Umno will win the bulk of the Malay seats and will therefore win the general election.

“Najib is so confident of this strategy that he has told his inner circles that Umno is aiming to take 140–160 seats in the 222-seat Parliament,” Chin said.

Without the powers of patronage and government machinery, Chin added, Mahathir was finding it increasingly difficult to influence the electorate.

“Mahathir’s problem is his strongman legacy. Many in the middle class and the opposition want him to apologise for human rights abuses during his 22 years in power, including the jailing of opposition leaders under the infamous Internal Security Act.

“Mahathir has steadfastly refused to do so and merely said he ‘regrets’ some of his actions.

“There is a sense among urban voters that Mahathir cannot be trusted and is only using the opposition to capture power. Some fear that once in power, he will revert back to his authoritarian ways.

“Hence, there is a real danger that educated, urban voters will protest Mahathir’s recalcitrance by simply staying at home during the general election rather than voting for the opposition, which indirectly helps Najib.”

The 1MDB scandal also does not appear to have gained the opposition political traction.

Despite the opposition’s efforts to paint Najib as a kleptocrat and an international pariah, Najib managed to meet US President Donald Trump in the White House and British Prime Minister Theresa May in London.

“The photo ops with Trump and May effectively numbed the opposition’s propaganda campaigns in Malay rural areas,” Chin said.

Then, Najib hosted King Salman of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudis promised investments in Malaysia worth US$7 billion.

Noting that Najib’s one weak point was the economy, in particular the strength of the Malaysian ringgit, which has lost more than 20% of its value since he came to power, Chin said the business community was slowing getting used to the weakened ringgit.

He added that most people would tolerate the ringgit at its current level of roughly RM4 to US$1.

Yet another reason for Najib’s confidence is that he is cleverly using the 2018 Budget to channel aid to more than seven million Malaysians in the bottom 40% of the population through cash transfers and individual tax cuts, Chin said.

To keep the 1.5 million-strong civil service on his side, Chin added, Najib was giving them additional days off, unrecorded leave for umrah pilgrimage and easier promotions.

“By the end of the year, Najib will be politically stronger. His deal with PAS has effectively blindsided Mahathir and PH, and the 1MBD corruption allegations are by and large considered ‘old news’ by the all-important rural Malay electorate.

“Going forward, the only danger facing Najib is Hadi’s health. Hadi has suffered several heart attacks and there is a possibility that a fatal heart attack could occur anytime.

“If he dies, PAS will split and Najib may not be able to hold the new PAS leaders to the deal made with Hadi.

“As long as Hadi lives until the next general election, Najib’s political status and reputation as Malaysia’s Teflon prime minister is assured,” Chin said.