MALAYSIA — On 8 April, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim confirmed that he would be part of the Pardons Board panel to decide on former premier Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s request for a royal pardon.
Anwar defended that there is no conflict of interest with him being part of the Pardons Board, and he stated that any individual could apply for a pardon in Malaysia, subject to the law and legal process.
Meanwhile, The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is Mr Anwar’s biggest partner in Unity Government, is seeking a royal pardon for their former president Najib Razak.
Najib is currently serving a 12-year jail term and has been fined RM210 million for his involvement in the SRC International Sdn Bhd case, which includes abuse of power, criminal breach of trust, and money laundering.
Najib has applied for a royal pardon from Malaysia’s King, which, if granted, would result in his early release from prison.
As of 21 April, an online petition on Change.org calling for Malaysia’s King to grant a royal pardon to Najib has garnered 25,483 signatures out of its target of 35,000.
While some politicians from PH have opposed Najib’s royal pardon, UMNO has been advocating for it.
The eagerness of some UMNO members to secure Najib’s release raises questions.
With the royal pardon petition gaining momentum, could this threaten the stability of the ruling Unity Government coalition?
Political analysts in Malaysia have weighed in on the recent UMNO movement and the divided opinions within the Unity Government coalition.
Najib can be a liability to UMNO
Associate Professor Dr Khoo Ying Hooi, Department Head at the Department of International and Strategic Studies, Universiti Malaya, highlighted that Najib’s return could pose a liability to UMNO, as not all members are in favour of his comeback.
Speaking to TOC, Dr Khoo said, “I wouldn’t say the whole UMNO wanted Najib to be Back. because Najib can be a liability as well because the public votes are already split, and especially if you put the younger generation in, are they going to accept this corruption (cases) that happens in the past?”
With six state elections coming up, Dr Khoo emphasised that the trends in how Malaysians vote are no longer as predictable as before due to political changes.
She noted that the younger generation is concerned about issues such as the economy and the practice of democracy in Malaysian politics, which UMNO will need to address to maintain support.
The fragmentation of Malay votes has affected UMNO’s declining support, and the internal power struggle within the party is causing further division.
The GE15 has shown the Malay support to PN led by Muhyiddin Yassin is relatively high.
“It is no longer just based on urban or rural Malay votes, there are also young generations, and how they associate themselves with the different political parties as well.”
Following the conclusion of the Malaysia 15th General Election (GE15) in November 2022, UMNO won only 26 out of 120 seats contested, and suffered its worst electoral outcome in history.
UMNO hopes “Bossku” trend can be re-ignited and win back Malay votes
Liew Wui Chern, political analyst and lecturer at the Department of Mass Communication, University of Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) Malaysia, pointed out that UMNO supporters believe that Najib still has influence and can once again ignite the “Bossku” trend.
“During the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the Bossku trend caused a lot of trouble for PH. They believe that if Najib can be pardoned, the Bossku trend can reappear and UMNO can win more Malay votes.”
UMNO faces a challenge with the split of Malay votes in Perikatan Nasional (PN).
“For this reason, UMNO is trying everything to have a so-called “spiritual leader” who can help UMNO win back these Malay votes. And there are no other “spiritual leaders” except Najib.”
On whether Najib could become a liability to UMNO due to the increasing number of young voters in the coming elections, Mr. Liew said it remains to be seen.
PN won young generation’s vote due to successful social media propaganda
Mr Liew added that young voters who support PN are not necessarily doing so because they dislike UMNO’s corruption, but more because of the effective social media campaigns by Pakatan Harapan.
“The younger generation’s tendency to vote for PN is due to the influence of social media, especially TikTok, which has successfully captured the attention of young Malaysians.”
He said that in the Malay community, people still believe that Najib is innocent, and various perspectives exist on this matter.
“Unlike before, there was a perception that Malay elites supporting PH and remote rural areas supporting UMNO, the current political landscape has become more complex and diverse.”
‘Najib to UMNO is like Erling Haaland to Manchester City’
Dr Lim Chee Han, Co-founder of Agora Society Malaysia, suggested that Najib to UMNO is like Erling Haaland to Manchester City, “Najib is definitely UMNO’s superstar striker, he can score ‘goals’ and provide big ‘assists’ for UMNO, winning back votes and seats for UMNO, which desperately needs such a turnaround in their political fortunes.”
According to Dr Lim, Najib’s social media following is massive, with 4.6 million followers on Facebook, 1 million on Instagram, and 4.1 million on Twitter.
“He often knows how to create a hot topic of discussion with his witty short comments, poking fun at political opponents,” said Dr Lim in an interview with TOC.
Looking at the by-election results since the Tanjung Piai by-election, and recalling the outcome of 2 major state elections in Melaka and Johor, Najib’s involvement had certainly helped the case and brought the most favourable results for UMNO.
Dr Lim noted that UMNO’s performance in GE15 was poor due to losing votes to PN, partly attributed to the latter’s more effective social media campaign, and those in UMNO hoping for Najib’s release to boost their chances in the upcoming state elections.
PH might want UMNO to strengthen their hands
Regarding the potential impact of a royal pardon for Najib on the ruling Unity Government’s stability, Dr Lim suggested that even PH could benefit from such a move if political gains outweigh justice.
“They might want UMNO to strengthen their hands and not concede any more seats to the PN in the upcoming six state elections. ”
Moreover, if it were a decision by the royalty, “at the king’s discretion” as Law Minister Azalina claimed, the government should not be implicated in influencing it.
He mentioned that Transport Minister and DAP secretary-general Anthony Loke from PH, distanced the government from the petition, but did not voice objections or mention any disagreement from his party colleagues.
More instability in the Unity Government if Najib granted a royal pardon
Mr Liew believes Najib would inject more instability into the Unity Government if granted a royal pardon.
“There will be unstable factors existing inside the Anwar’s Unity Government, whether the royal pardon to Najib is granted or not.”
However, UMNO might see that if Najib’s royal pardon is successfully granted, it will show that UMNO’s influence is still strong, and they will have more confidence that Malay votes will return.
“Why are the top and grassroots of UMNO actively pushing for Najib’s pardon? Because they all have a perception that if Najib is released, the votes will flow back, and UMNO may become more dominant. ”
PN supporters would definitely call the bluff of Anwar and PH’s anti-corruption stance
Dr Lim also warned that PN supporters would definitely call out Anwar and PH on their anti-corruption stance: how could a convicted person with strong evidence of corruption go free while their PN leaders are now being investigated and ‘harassed’ by the corruption charges?
“PN supporters would cry injustice and claim victimhood, and this could reinforce the perception among ordinary people that the government is selectively prosecuting to score political points. ”
Dr Khoo also believed that the return of Najib could complicate the situation and potentially harm the unity government, particularly the image of Pakatan Harapan, in which Anwar had earlier vowed to fight corruption in the country.
Dr Khoo added that the opposition’s resistance in the past was primarily against UMNO and BN, and accepting them back could damage their reputation in the eyes of the public.
Malaysia’s ex-PM try to warn about Unity Government could be collapsed
Concerns about the stability of Anwar’s Unity Government have also arisen among Malaysians.
Recently, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Malaysia’s former Prime Minister, warned that UMNO-PH “forced marriages” would not last long, noting that the ruling parties in the unity government were already publicly attacking each other, which could lead to a “permanent break-up.”
According to Mr Liew, Ismail Sabri’s use of the phrase “forced marriage” was a warning to the unity government.
“Ismail was trying to remind BN that if they didn’t find a way to resolve the current situation and restrain themselves from fighting with each other, they would surely divorce.”
While Ismail Sabri had previously opposed the alliance between BN and PH, Mr Liew said the former PM has had to accept the fact that Zahid has solidified his control over the party and those who opposed him were either removed from the Supreme Council or expelled from the party.
“He has been Prime Minister before, and he should be very clear that if the unity government collapses, he will have nothing, and UMNO’s fate as a ruling party will be uncertain. ”
“BN only holds 30 seats, and they can only be a kingmaker in forming a government, but they are unable to control the government’s decision-making process, ” Mr Liew added.
Dr Lim: political alliance between PH and UMNO as a “marriage of convenience”
Meanwhile, Dr Lim does not think that the political alliance between PH and UMNO is a “forced marriage”, but rather a “marriage of convenience”.
“Both sides, especially the leaders, are willing parties, more than happy to hold hands and join forces as long as they can share the spoils of government and stay in power. ”
He said UMNO could have gotten a worse deal if it had been “forced” to form a coalition government with PN.
Similarly, PH doesn’t have enough seats to form a government on its own, and it would certainly be happy if the “kingmaker” UMNO-BN decided to back PH to lead the new government after GE15.
Dr Lim said Ismail Sabri’s statement could harm UMNO’s reputation by portraying the party as compromising too much and playing second fiddle to former political opponent PH, which could cast doubt on party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and resonate with traditional UMNO supporters.
Coming six state elections will be crucial for UMNO to regain their support
Dr Khoo said within this so-called “forced marriage”, the fact is that Malaysia has a Unity Government because all the political coalitions could not achieve the major votes in terms to form government alone.
“The election did really show the fragmentation of how Malaysians actually vote, no one really gained the major support here. ”
But she is certain of one thing, which is that Malay votes will continue to be the key in many elections.
“That’s why much attention is being put forward to this the six upcoming state elections.”
She said analysts are paying close attention to how Malays will vote, and many acknowledge the influence of Perikatan Nasional (PN), as protest votes against UMNO could result in support for other parties such as Pakatan Harapan or PN.
However, if Pakatan Harapan fails to fulfil its promises due to its compromise with UMNO, voters may be dissatisfied and turn to other parties.
“Some voters are not happy because they (PH) have to compromise with this whole unity government that you know some of the things that PH can’t do, they wanted to do, but they had to compromise with another, likes UMNO.”
“It’s really about how UMNO are going to survive in this, because I think they are no longer as strong as before in the past, and certainly this is quite something that UMNO is worried about.”
Dr Khoo noted that the coming six state elections will be crucial for UMNO to regain their support, especially in constituencies with a significant non-Malay voter population.
These state elections will be an indicator for the next General Election in 2026, and the results will show how satisfied people are with the Unity Government.