Spotlight - Malaysia: April 24, 2023


Now that the first 100 days of Anwar Ibrahim’s government are over, the democratic path that the iconic leader of the Reformasi movement had promised to set the country on remains extremely sinuous. Stuck between his allies in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and his opponents in the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, Anwar has not had much room to maneuver, or to implement any of his long-promised reforms. Until now, most decisions have been short-sighted populist moves, including extra holidays, free tolls for the Eid al-Fitr celebration, and flashy announcements leading nowhere.

The immediate preoccupation of this government is to remain in power. On the eve of six state polls due by mid-2023, the prime minister is in campaign mode. While the northern states of Kedah, Terengganu, and Kelantan will most likely see big wins for PN, Penang will likely remain in the hands of Anwar's Pakatan Harapan (PH). The biggest stakes will be in the states of Negeri Sembilan and Selangor, both currently held by PH. The loss of these two states would be a terrible defeat and throw the government into great uncertainty. With several opposition leaders facing charges of corruption and abuse of power, discourse casting the opposition as victims of a witch hunt has echoed throughout their constituencies. The question is whether UMNO supporters, who saw their party ally with Anwar’s PH coalition in the last election, will remain in the fold or defect to other alternatives.

UMNO is divided into two main factions. Current deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi successfully maintained his position as UMNO president by passing a no-contest motion during the last party election in January. This move followed a succession of dismissals of key party figures, including former health minister (and now radio host) Khairy Jamaluddin. Since then, a number of former UMNO figures, including Khairy, have been in talks with PN leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin to join his party Bersatu. Announcements are expected in the next few weeks as the opposition closes ranks.

Meanwhile, Najib Razak’s lawyers, supported by UMNO’s leadership, have filed a motion to the Pardons Board to examine the possibility of the king granting a pardon to the former prime minister. The king acts on the advice of the board, which includes Prime Minister Anwar and civil servants that he has appointed. Najib has served 8 months of his 12-year sentence for several counts of corruption related to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Najib’s defense is that he was the victim of a scammer—fugitive financier Jho Low.

The release of Najib could entirely jeopardize Anwar’s already fragile position. Anwar’s compromise in allying with his former enemy UMNO has raised questions on what he prioritizes more: his commitment to reform and the fight against corruption, or his two decades-long pursuit of power. In the eyes of Anwar’s supporters and the international community, the legitimacy of his alliance with Zahid’s UMNO is conditioned by the fact that Najib remains in detention. If Najib remains in jail, the alliance is a little more acceptable. So too are Zahid’s possibly soon-to-be-evaporated charges of abuse of power and corruption. In fact, while several top-level individuals were investigated and have been proven to be linked to the 1MDB case, most were not charged, and others successfully concluded deals to remain out of jail. Najib’s high-profile and historic imprisonment seemed enough for the Malaysian judiciary to create a precedent and reaffirm its independence—an independence often questioned by a long and complex history of politically motivated charges against key leaders, including Anwar himself.

If Najib were to be pardoned and released, the former prime minister would immediately work on reinstating his power within the party, with the help of his hardcore supporters and personal resources. The return of Najib could highly destabilize either Zahid or Anwar. The question is which one of the two would be more easily disposable. Malaysia’s recent political climate has demonstrated that, over the past few years, all alliances and allegiances are possible. In this context, does a Najib-Anwar alliance sound so improbable?

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.