Since coming to power in April 2009, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak has used the threat of an early election to keep his political opponents at bay. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim had to fight-off another charge of sodomy and at the same time work the electorate amid the constant prospect that the next poll was just around the corner.
It was crafty politics, early elections are unprecedented in Malaysia but the game is changing. Najib’s timeline for a poll is starting to run short and he must call an election by the first half of next year.
More importantly a court case is about to get under way in France over alleged kickbacks involving Malaysia’s acquisition of two submarines and the murder of a Mongolian model. This is threatening to steal the political gains that Najib had fought so hard to build since coming into office.
“It's looking less likely that there'll be an early election and this trial in France over kickbacks and the Scorpene project is about to get under way which means bad headlines,” said Gavin Greenwood, a regional risk analyst with Allan & Associates in Hong Kong.
“All of sudden I think Najib is not looking as strong given the momentum he has built up over the last year or two with reforms and budget giveaways,” he said.
The allegations are that “French submarine maker DCNS paid commission of more than 114 million euros (US$142 million) to a purported shell company linked to Abdul Razak Baginda, a former close associate of Najib.” The opposition says the payments were kickbacks to officials involved in the US$1.1 billion purchase of two Scorpene-class attack submarines for the Malaysian navy.
After these deals were struck Abdul Razak's Mongolian mistress was shot dead and her body blown up with plastic explosives near Kuala Lumpur, in 2006. Reports later said she had demanded a payoff for working as a language translator in the deal.
Police officers Azilah Hadri and Sirul Azhar Umar were found guilty and sentenced to hang for the murder of Altantuya Shaariibuu, however, Sirul maintains the pair are scapegoats. Abdul Razak was cleared by a court but this failed to quell opposition suspicions.
That should have been where the matter ended, then the Malaysian rights group Suaram filed a complaint in France and judges launched a fresh investigation focusing on allegations of impropriety by French officials involved with the sale of the submarines.
Greenwood said the recent release of French documents through the Asia Sentinel website, readily accessible in Malaysia, coupled with highly politicized moves in France to deal with a generation of leaders accused of involvement in corrupt arms deals, may well claim Najib as a collateral casualty.
“The Scorpene case, and more importantly within the Malaysian context the linked, still unexplained and often contradictory evidence and circumstance surrounding the murder of the young Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu, remain potent symbols for the excesses of those who wield political power and the corresponding weakness of those who do not.
“While the legal system was used relentlessly to prosecute Anwar on the most tenuous evidence, the manner in which those who were closely tied to Alantuya in life and who may have had motive to see her removed were treated by the courts was extraordinary,” he said.
Unsubstantiated allegations of kickbacks have also been linked to Najib who as defense minister in 2002 had overseen the deal but he is unlikely appear before a French court.
Current Defense Minister Zahid Hamidi has indicated Malaysia will not co-operate with any requests from France for witnesses, even if subpoenaed.
Such attitudes are unlikely to help Najib’s electoral prospects. Independent media coverage has flourished in Malaysia with the arrival of the Internet. The eye-popping headlines expected from a trial, which could last years, will grab the attention of most Malaysians unlike never before.
Greenwood said Najib‘s options on when to call the next election were dramatically reduced in early January 2012 when Malaysia’s High Court struck down the sodomy charges against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
“With no direct knowledge of the internal maneuvering within UMNO, it should be assumed that the party leadership will calculate where their best interests now lie ahead of the elections that must be held by late June 2013,” he said.
“If they believe Najib has become more of a liability than an asset, then his future is bleak.”
Still Anwar and his PKR three-party alliance are unlikely to beat the UMNO dominated Barisan Nasional coalition at the next election but its agenda based on curbing corruption will strike a chord with the electorate which can only be fueled further by the courts in Paris.
“It's a bit of a mixed bag,” regional commentator Ray Leos, Dean of Communications at Pannasastra University in Cambodia said of the opposition. “Criticizing the government and making promises to the electorate is one thing, dealing with the often cold, hard realities of governing is another.”
“They've fashioned themselves as economic populists and have made a lot of promises, such as wiping out student university debt and spending more on health care. But how are they going to pay for all this? They say by clamping down on corruption, but how exactly? I'd like to see more details on that.”
Najib must realize his chances for calling an early election are fading fast and with that perhaps his best chance at winning back the political ground lost in 2008 and securing his own political future, although Leos remains optimistic and realistically UMNO’s best chances probably still lie with Najib.
“I wouldn't count him out despite all the recent troubles. Don't underestimate him, he is a resilient, very canny politician and his nearly 40 years in Malaysian politics is a testament to that,” Leos said.
Still, an early election could have proved disastrous for Anwar’s political fortunes and allowed Najib to govern with his own electoral mandate but it remains a threat the Prime Minister has so far failed to act on and this decision might one day cost him his job.