Malaysians are widely expected to elect Prime Minister Najib Razak to another term in office when they go to the polls on Sunday, but any victory will fall far short of a ringing endorsement and could herald trouble ahead.
Najib’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – the pro-Malay lead political party in the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition – has never been as unpopular as it is going into this election, according to analysts, who have pointed out that an absence of independent and reliable opinion polls makes forecasting difficult.
But a series of scandals following the 2008 election, UMNO’s worst since Malaysia was granted independence by the colonial British more than 55 years ago, coupled with massive street protests demanding electoral reform has some observers even suggesting that a first-ever UMNO loss is possible.
Despite his short comings, Najib – who ousted his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in a party room coup in 2009 – enjoys a high personal approval rating largely thanks to Malaysia’s racial divides. That popularity is probably strong enough to offset widespread loathing for UMNO and BN.
“You will note that the election is about Najib’s leadership,” Din Merican, an independent analyst who has worked for most major political parties, told The Diplomat. “It is like the presidential elections in the US. Barisan Nasional is less popular than Najib, who is seen as hardworking and efficient with lots of ideas.”
However, Merican added that Najib and UMNO will not win back the cherished two-thirds majority in parliament, which allows the leadership to rewrite the constitution and pass laws without obstruction. The parliamentary majority was lost by Badawi five years ago.
Nonetheless, UMNO is expected to pick up votes due to political brawling over Islamic laws between Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). And come election day, UMNO’s influence over the government-friendly press, its financial backing and dirty tricks department are expected to just get it over the line.
“I expect Najib to pull through because of massive cheating, gerrymandering,” Merican added. If this prediction proves correct, Najib will have to overcome a litany of accusations.