Najib's 1MDB conviction: Will former Malaysian PM's Umno party stand by him?

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives at Kuala Lumpur High Court in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 28, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

Najib Razak ’s first 1MDB -linked criminal trial may be done and dusted, but the former Malaysian prime minister faces another cliffhanger.

Now he has been convicted and sentenced to jail, albeit with bail pending appeal, the next big question is this: will his long-time allies in the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) stand by him or cast him aside?

The powerful political party’s collective stance on Najib could weigh on its recent resurgence and the path forward in its alliance with Prime Minister Muhyuddin Yassin, analysts say.

Defeated in 2018’s elections after an uninterrupted 61 years as the country’s most important political force, Umno in February found itself back in power when a few defectors from the then-ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance reached out to it to form a new government.

Muhyiddin, among the instigators of that move, now depends on Umno’s 39 MPs to retain his Perikatan Nasional alliance’s two-seat parliamentary majority.

Those political manoeuvres marked a change in fortunes for Umno. Its 2018 defeat triggered deep soul searching, defections and an upheaval in its leadership.

Analysts believe Tuesday’s verdict will trigger a fresh round of navel gazing in the party, the country’s biggest political organisation with 3.2 million members.

“One notable thing from the initial reactions from Umno is that there is no single, unified response on whether Najib was indeed wrongly convicted and whether Umno should help to rehabilitate him,” said Harrison Cheng, a Malaysian politics observer and analyst with the Control Risks consultancy.

“It’s not a clear-cut case that all of Umno is keen to stick to Najib.”

A day after Justice Mohamad Nazlan Ghazali’s ruling, there were few clues on the thinking among some of the biggest names in the party, which Najib helmed for a decade until he resigned as president in 2018 after the election defeat.

Najib’s father, the country’s late second prime minister Abdul Razak Hussein, is one of Umno’s most revered figures.

Abdul Razak Hussein, the second prime minister of Malaysia, and Najib’s father. Photo: SCMP Pictures

His uncle, Hussein Onn – the father of current Umno stalwart and foreign minister Hishammuddin Hussein – succeeded Abdul Razak as the country’s third leader.

Despite his legal troubles, Najib himself remains a respected grandee within Umno.

Some observers say the resurgence of Umno and the larger Barisan Nasional bloc that used to govern the country is due in part to the war chest made available by Najib.

A handful of the party’s most vocal pro-Najib zealots, such as supreme council members Lokman Adam and Mohd Puad Zarkashi, on Tuesday lashed out at the judgment and suggested it was politically motivated.

Lokman, a self-styled party bruiser, told the Malay Mail Online: “Dissolve the Parliament and you will see what will happen. I also think Umno and other MPs have got to do something. It’s time for them to show that they have some balls.”

But by and large, the party’s heavyweights offered measured responses.

Umno’s Lokman Adam. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Measured responses

Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Najib’s former number two who is facing corruption charges of his own, on Tuesday wrote on Facebook that he was “saddened by the decision” but urged everyone to give the former prime minister “room to get justice through the country’s legal process”.

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Zahid, who succeeded Najib as Umno president, said the party would soon “make a political decision as a result of today’s decision”.

Foreign Minister Hishammuddin – also Najib’s first cousin – said he accepted the court’s decision with “mixed feelings”.

“Although it's a heavy outcome, I admire Datuk Seri Najib’s resilience, patience, and grit in dealing with the trial and its tribulations,” he said, using Najib’s honorific title.

Others, such as former youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin took a firmer position. The politician said the party needed to “move forward and carry out the rejuvenation process”.

Asked what he thought of Khairy’s comments, Najib said: “No problem. Everyone can have their views. It’s just an opinion.”

Later, Najib wrote a sarcasm-laced Facebook post thanking the younger politician for his support.

“He also fought strongly against Pakatan Harapan every day until it collapsed and he became a minister,” Najib wrote.

Umno’s Khairy Jamaluddin.  PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Khairy, 44, is among the Umno heavyweights picked by Muhyiddin to be a minister in the new Perikatan National government.

In the aftermath of the 2018 election, Khairy was among the handful of Umno insiders who acknowledged that ignoring the massive losses at the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad state fund had contributed to the party’s downfall.

Analysts say one open question for now is whether outrightly pro-Najib supporters among Umno MPs may pull support from Muhyiddin’s government.

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Even before Tuesday’s verdict, the party’s alliance with Muhyiddin – who took with him a majority of MPs from his Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) when he defected – had been tetchy at best.

Some within Umno have voiced suspicion of the prime minister, and questioned whether he still seeks vengeance over how he was shafted out of the party in 2015 for criticising Najib over the 1MDB saga.

He was the deputy prime minister at the time. Later, he joined hands with Mahathir Mohamad – the elder statesman who led Pakatan Harapan – to defeat Najib in the 2018 election.

Puad Zarkashi, an Umno supreme council member, on Tuesday showed the disdain in which some in Najib’s camp hold Muhyiddin.

“The person who is smiling in satisfaction at Najib’s conviction today is Muhyiddin, not Dr Mahathir Mohamad,” he wrote on Facebook.

"Najib will definitely know why this has happened to him. What is hidden here is vengeance.”

Umno's electoral chances

Peter Mumford of the consultancy Eurasia Group said for now Umno would not splinter from Muhyiddin’s Perikatan Nasional, “though this remains a significant risk for the prime minister”.

Rumours have been rife that Muhyiddin was eyeing a snap election – possibly after the tabling of the budget in November – to shore up his razor-thin majority.

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But many commentators had thought Umno would back Najib, instead of Muhyiddin, to be prime minister if it were to contest the polls as part of the Perikatan Nasional bloc.

That is now a moot scenario as Najib’s conviction disqualifies him from contesting elections. Mumford said Umno’s reaction would be restrained “especially if a lengthy appeal process makes jail time unlikely for Najib in the near term”.

The party also does not have a credible alternative candidate for prime minister, with Zahid Hamidi, Najib’s former top lieutenant, facing his own legal problems.

Cheng, the Singapore-based consultant, said Umno was likely to “continue to have access to Najib’s war chest and use that to ensure ground support among their core constituencies, which are the ethnic Malays living in semiurban and rural areas”.

In the event of snap polls, the party will need to name a new candidate for Najib’s seat in Pekan, in the central state of Pahang.

Cheng said: “There is nothing stopping [Najib] from campaigning and using his brand name – which is stronger than that of other Umno leaders even if it has diminished because of the conviction – to improve Umno’s outreach.”

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The 12-year jail term and 210 million ringgit (S$68 million) fine handed down to Najib for seven charges is the first ever criminal sentence handed to a Malaysian prime minister.

He faces 35 other charges spanning four other trials, two of which are under way.

Najib said after the verdict that the outcome was “definitely not the end of the world”, and pledged to clear his name through the appeal process.

He was granted bail and a stay on the sentence pending appeal to the Court of Appeal, the country’s second highest judicial body.

After that – depending on the outcome – the 67-year-old politician or the prosecutors can raise the matter to the country’s highest court, the Federal Court.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.