ALTHOUGH all signs were pointing to early elections for Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak quelled speculation Tuesday, saying he had no intention to call for snap polls before his mandate expires mid-2018.
This means the prime minister will serve his full five-year term until August that year, even as pundits say early elections may be the best bet for the embattled leader to stop opposition forces from gaining political momentum.
Speaking to reporters during his visit to Germany, Najib said, however, that such a decision should not be based on “any single factor”.
“We rest on our record. We have a strong record and we will continue to tell the Malaysian people that our government is still the best choice,” he was quoted in Reuters as saying.
It was just as well for Najib and his ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition as Malaysia’s opposition front appears split over one fundamental decision – their candidate for Najib’s replacement.
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s fiercest critic and the country’s longest serving former prime minister, had last week proposed that the coveted seat be given to Muhyiddin Yassin, another former BN man.
Muhyiddin was axed from Najib’s Cabinet last year ostensibly over his open criticism of the prime minister and his handling of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal. Najib and his cohort are accused of misappropriating billions of ringgit from the state investment fund. The controversy has triggered a multitude of probes and court cases across the globe.
“At the moment, we are not saying anything except that, if the opposition wins, the most likely prime minister will be Muhyiddin,” Dr Mahathir was quoted in Straits Times (via The Star) as saying during a London lecture.
“But it depends on his party, whether they will elect him as president, and it depends on the coalition, who should be prime minister,” he added.
The elder statesman was referring to Pakatan Harapan, a loose alliance of key opposition parties vying for Najib’s removal. The pact is led by Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime enemy of Dr Mahathir’s.
Despite their years of animosity, both sides came together in recent months due to their shared desire to topple Najib and are currently looking at possibly forming one grand opposition coalition by yearend.
According to leaders of Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM), a party recently established among Dr Mahathir, Muhyiddin and other Najib detractors formerly of BN lynchpin Umno, consolidating the opposition would increase their chances of unseating Najib in the next federal polls.
But unsurprisingly, these leaders are of two minds about Najib’s replacement.
After Dr Mahathir mooted Muhyiddin for prime minister, leaders from the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the People’s Justice Party (PKR), both members of the tripartite Pakatan Harapan pact, immediately disagreed with the suggestion.
DAP’s acting national chairman Tan Kok Wai said in the Straits Times article that there should not be further talk about the matter as it was already previously decided that Anwar, who is currently in jail for sodomy, should assume the post should the opposition win the polls.
DAP’s publicity chief Tony Pua said the same, pointing out that this had always been Pakatan Harapan’s decision.
“As it stands, Pakatan Harapan’s position is, and remains, Anwar Ibrahim (for prime minister),” he was quoted telling Malaysiakini.
He acknowledged that Anwar is still in prison and still has four years to serve behind bars but said, “We’ll worry about that later.” Anwar was jailed for five years beginning February 2015 after he was found guilty of sodomising his former aide.
PKR vice-president Shamsul Iskandar Mohd Akin echoed the sentiment, saying, “Dr Mahathir knows that the people’s choice is always Anwar as in the past election, 52 per cent of popular voters chose him to lead the pact,” he was quoted in Straits Times as saying.
Regardless their final decision, however, Malaysia’s fractured opposition will likely stand little chance against Najib and the powerful BN coalition, which has ruled the country since independence in 1957.
Najib, despite the opposition’s relentless attacks and bad press over his alleged complicity in the 1MDB scandal, still survived the last federal polls in 2013, and later further consolidated his position after weeding out his detractors from Umno and in the government.
The next polls contest is expected to result in the same or may even see Najib fare better, especially if authorities proceed with the recent proposal to redraw Malaysia’s electoral boundaries. According to the opposition, the proposal amounts to gerrymandering, and is tailored to guarantee Najib a resounding win.