Malaysia’s Najib entrenches power as reform drive fades

Malaysia’s Najib entrenches power as reform drive fades

KUALA LUMPUR - Internal voting for top posts in Malaysia's ruling coalition at the weekend have proved Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to be a canny survivor - five months after a poor showing at national elections - but at a cost to his reform agenda.

In May, Najib seemed dead in the water to some observers after presiding over the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation's (UMNO) worst election result.

The internal UMNO elections, however, confirmed Najib had seen off challenges from rival factions - including the son of influential former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Mukhriz Mahathir, 48, fell just short of snaring one of three vice president positions, all of which went to incumbents backed by Najib. Najib's allies also retained their dominance of the 25-member UMNO Supreme Council.

Since coming to power in 2009, Najib had eased draconian security laws and pledged to phase out privileges for majority ethnic Malays that have hurt Malaysia's competitiveness.

Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese minority and most urban voters largely rejected the UMNO-dominated Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition at the election and Najib has since reversed both policies under pressure from traditionalists.

Despite that, he has not appeased all of his conservative rivals, signalling he will remain under pressure to rein in any reformist instincts. On Friday, Mahathir, 88, launched an outspoken attacks on what he called Najib's "bad performance".

Among other barbs, Mahathir said maintaining the status quo in the UMNO hierarchy would hasten the party's demise after 56 years in power. He also blamed Najib for adding to Malaysia's debt burden with pre-election handouts, and criticised his economic development programmes for lacking credibility.

"The party finds it unable to reject him simply because there are really no other candidates ... the result is they continue to support him despite his poor performance," Mahathir told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

Najib will present his government's budget for 2014 on Friday, under pressure from ratings agencies and investors to rein in Malaysia's high fiscal deficit and debt.

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