After the by-elections: Would Najib win a snap general election?

Photo: radiantjustice/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Holly Reeves

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is officially invincible. In the first major test of his leadership in peninsular Malaysia since his reputation fell into deep question, his candidates have won resounding victories in two by-elections held this week.

His first candidate, Budiman Mohamad Zohdi, won the parliamentary seat of Sungai Besar, in central-west Malaysia, while the second, Mastura Mohamad Yazid won the Kuala Kangsar constituency seat, says the election commission.

“I am grateful to the people for putting their faith in Barisan Nasional (BN) ‎again. As a mid-term government being targeted by unprecedented politically-motivated slander, we are especially humbled that we ‎received such landslide results,” Najib said in a statement.

This has been a hard-fought campaign for the prime minister, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the ruling BN coalition. And in the last few weeks they have thrown, money, time, energy and threats at the populace.

“I support the opposition more than BN, but you have to also think about who has better access to the government, who can get more things done and who can improve your life,” said Mei, an ethnic Chinese fruit seller in Sekinchan town, Sungai Besar, who would give only a partial name. “You have to look out for your own interests, and not what the prime minister did or didn’t do.”

A welcome victory

So, this is not an entirely ringing victory. Turnout in the semi-urban constituencies was between 71 and 74% for the two seats, lower than the Election Commission’s forecast of 75%, and shy of levels above 80% recorded in 2013. That was due to voters living in other cities and outside Malaysia who didn’t return to cast a ballot. These are often young people, who generally tend to be opposition supporters.

This doesn’t matter much though. A good victory is a victory, and Najb will surely be relieved. “Najib desperately needs these wins,” said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, dean of the college of law, government and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “It will validate his position that despite all the problems he’s facing, they are able to win.”

The prime minister himself is vitriolic and quickly took aim at his arch-nemesis Mahathir Mohamad. “Now, with these two huge majority wins, ‎and BN’s landslide 72 out of 82 seat Sarawak election win last month, the people have shown their confidence for and trust in BN,” he says.

“They rejected Tun Mahathir’s lies, they rejected his unworkable coalition of former enemies, and they rejected the incoherent opposition – partly because of their alignment with Tun Mahathir.‎”

A fractured opposition

That’s not entirely the case though. Yes, Mahathir’s influence has not been helpful, but the fractured nature of the current opposition has been a huge advantage for UMNO. And they should push it says political analyst Maszlee Malik.

“In light of the Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar by-election results, it would be best for Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak to expedite the 14th general election to regain two thirds majority for BN and press forward with all the agendas that were delayed,” he explains.

“While the opposition is divided into two bickering groups, BN will remain in power and it is not impossible for BN to achieve a bigger win if a snap poll is called soon.”

Najib himself has previously commented on pressure to call such an election, saying an early poll is possible ahead of the mid-2018 deadline but it should not come “too soon.” The most likely time for this would be after the tabling of the 2017 budget; no doubt stuffed with vote-winning economic stimulus packages for hard-to-win locations.

However, there are a number of factors that will influence this decision and the party is already working through a strategic plan to prepare. Part of this is getting the all-important party machinery in place to increase voter sign-ups and push home the advantages of UMNO to rural citizens.

The other big consideration is the outcome of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal that has dogged the Prime MInister in recent months. However, in an announcement this week Najib told the country the Malaysian government signed an agreement to take over 1MDB’s remaining stake in a multi-billion dollar development project.

The shareholder agreement will put the finance ministry in control of 1MDB’s 40% holding in the Bandar Malaysia project. This quiet development moves to close the messy 1MDB chapter from a financial perspective. Now we must watch and wait to see where criminal charges are pressed.

A big decision

If an election were to be held in the near future it is more than possible that Najib could pull off a victory, finally eliminating his enemies from parliamentary positions thanks to his power to select candidates and place party rivals in unwinnable contests.

And with no effective opposition leader, he could also finally crush the mishmash of disorganised political groups cutting into BN’s support base. And if he won, the 1MDB scandal and that “donation” would sink into the background of a new parliamentary term.

In the euphoria of a strong win this has to be an appealing option for the prime minister; if he wins big then he solves many of his problems. However the victories in Sungai Besar and Kuala Kangsar, as well as Sarawak before them, were votes on personality politics – ballots won by popular local candidates.

On the big stage has he got the courage, the votes, and the pure popularity to survive? Pull the trigger Najib – there’s only one way to find out.