UMNO’s big question: Is it time for Prime Minister Najib to step down?

Opposition forces in Malaysia are creating a growing coalition of critical voices which call for the resignation of the scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib’s. He is publicly standing firm but are discussions behind the scenes likely to be pushing him towards the exit?

By Tan Zhi Xin

A sea change is happening in Malaysia. Political enemies, Mahathir Mohamad and leading opposition figure, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim have formed a marriage of convenience. Their goal is to oust scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib.

But this drive is only deepening existing divisions, as the Malaysian political scene is pushed further into a split between the pro-Najib camp and anti-Najb forces. The latter is led by Mahathir, and is also known as the ‘core group’.

Working with Mahathir are notable politicians like Lim Kit Siang from the Democratic Alliance Party (DAP); Mahathir’s wife, Dr Siti Hasmah Ali; former Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) chief Ling Liong Sik; Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) deputy leader and Selangor chief minister Azmin Ali; Partai Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) stalwarts Husam Musa and Mustafa Ali; Pakatan Harapan leader Mat Sabu; former cabinet ministers Daim Zainuddin and Zaid Ibrahim; and civil society leaders like Bersih’s Maria Chin Abdullah.

“It’s not about joining the opposition or any group. It is about citizens joining together to show support,” said Mahathir, reading from a memorandum agreed by the 58 signatories in support of regime change. There is no doubt this is a strange and unprecedented union, but also a risky strategy. After all, it is difficult for political enemies to overcome their differences to work together.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has speculated that if the core group could work together, it would become a powerful coalition and a serious threat to the long-ruling UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) and Barisan Nasional (BN) in the upcoming election. It would either trigger a “nation-wide awakening that could transform into an anti-Najib groundswell” or exert pressure on UMNO to undertake a leadership change.

A face-saving exit?

 The pressure for the party is that Najib’s 1MDB corruption scandal has come at a time when are trying to consolidate support, particularly in the wake of street protests and a budget that has dropped important subsidies for the average voter. So against this backdrop of an increasingly hostile environment, can we can expect that UMNO – at least quietly – may soon be considering a face-saving exit for Najib in the lead up to the next General Election?

Some suggest the ideal option is the early retirement of the Prime Minister, possibly due to ‘health reasons’. If this was the case it would come as a double-win for UMNO, because on one hand, it is able to present itself as a reformed party ready to lead Malaysia again and on the other, have hope that the taint of corruption leaves with Najib.

In a noteworthy commentary entitled “Why Prime Minister Najib is on his way out”, one of his former colleagues speculates that he will indeed voluntarily step down as Prime Minister and President of UMNO sometime in early or mid-2017 in order to ensure the party has the advantages in the next election.

It is worth noting that he has already done some groundwork on such a move before he was cleared of corruption charges. It is reported he entered negotiations for guarantees of immunity and requested asylum status in various Middle Eastern countries. But since he now faces no charges the picture, and reports of his potential flight, become less certain.

“There’s no reason for him to (quit), so it’s not likely to happen… If he hands over power, it’s as though he’s admitting that all those accusations made against him were true,” believes Universiti Malaysia Sarawawak (Unimas) Professor Jeniri Amir.

And even the latest round of street protest calling for his resignation does not seem to have had much effect. He denied he would leave saying, “(any) other attempt to overthrow the government before then would be unconstitutional”.

And of course, Najib has weathered previous crises. He has long adopted the position of  denying any wrongdoing, while at the same time, silencing his opposition. Activists and opposition leaders were arrested at the street rallies last week, including Maria Chin Abdullah, the chair of Bersih and organiser of the rally. She was detained under Malaysia’s Security Offences (Special Measures) Act and was just one of many arrests made in the following days. The crackdown on dissent continues.

And so, in terms of the future for both Najib, and his opposition, it did seem that cooperation among political enemies could have finally pushed him towards a negotiated exit from the political scene. But the twists and turns of fate, the shifting mood around 1MDB and his iron-hand approach to managing his critics seems to have left him holding on. For now.  The long walk to the General Election to 2018 may yet prove a marathon too far for both him and his party.