Malaysian politics is at an inflection point. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say it is in a mega-crisis.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has just countered his critics over the massive 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal by sacking his vocal Deputy Prime Minister and the Attorney-General who led a high-level probe. This latest twist has left many bracing themselves for a backlash and uncertainty.
Yet, it is not just the ruling Umno-led Barisan Nasional (BN) government that is in trouble. The opposition coalition is also grappling with its own survival.
It is significant that both sides of the political divide are reeling under unprecedented pressure or in disarray simultaneously.
What will come out of this?
It is the crisis in BN that is more serious, given the repercussions reverberating throughout the system due to Umno’s defining role as the ruling coalition’s anchor party.
LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN UMNO
Datuk Seri Najib is fighting for his political life in the face of the scandal in the 1MDB investment fund which he advises. Never before has a sitting prime minister been openly pressured to step down relating to a financial probe – with the charge led by a former prime minister at that, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
Never before has there been a high-level probe into the dealings of a government-linked investment fund whose chief adviser is the finance minister, who is also prime minister.
While the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin is no surprise, given his outspokenness over Mr Najib’s handling of the 1MDB scandal, the premature replacement of Attorney-General Abdul Gani Patail “on health grounds” is intriguing. He is due to retire in three months, so why the hurry?
As Tan Sri Abdul Gani was leading the probe by the special task force into the 1MDB scandal, speculation is rife as to whether his exit may delay the probe. Mr Abdul Gani himself appeared taken aback by his replacement, as announced by the Chief Cabinet Secretary just before Mr Najib’s own unveiling of the Cabinet reshuffle, which catapulted his strongest ally, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, to be the new deputy prime minister.
Prior to the reshuffles, Mr Najib’s political position had been in doubt. There had been rumours of actions about to be taken by the task force; even predictions of a new prime minister by the coming National Day next month.
By removing his deputy and the attorney-general, Mr Najib has clearly shown he intends to stay on top of the crisis. He also inducted into Cabinet Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed, the equally outspoken chair of the bipartisan Parliamentary Accounts Committee, which is also involved in the probe.
Mr Najib appears to have strengthened his hand now. But it remains to be seen if this is enough to resolve one of Malaysia’s most sensational political crises.
No pushover, Tan Sri Muhyiddin has strong support within Umno, where he is deputy president. He has said in his post-reshuffle statement that he intends to stay on in Umno.
Equally important is how Dr Mahathir will respond, having been highly critical of Mr Najib as prime minister. Should there be a major counter-push by Dr Mahathir, Mr Muhyiddin and other forces, Malaysia’s political crisis will become more explosive. Even if Mr Najib survives this, it is hard to see how he would emerge unscathed.
More worrying for Umno and BN is whether the ruling coalition will be able to retain power in the next general election, having lost the popular vote in the last elections in 2013 despite winning more than half the seats. It got 60 per cent of parliamentary seats even though it won just 47.4 per cent of votes.
LEADERSHIP CRISIS IN OPPOSITION
It is by a sheer stroke of luck for Umno and BN that their political crisis has come at a time when the opposition is in total disarray.
The loose opposition coalition, long known to be fragile, has finally come unstuck. Its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, is in jail, while its three coalition partners are in a hyper-fluid state of repositioning. And it’s all because of recrimination over hudud (Islamic criminal code) between two longstanding ideological foes who tried in vain to be friends, leaving the third – Anwar’s own party – caught between a rock and a hard place.
The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) is now dead, a victim of the crisis that began in the Islamic ally, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), and led to the purge of its inclusivist professionals faction. Two other allies – the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) – are trying to reinvent the opposition coalition with a “PR 2.0″, linking up with the purged faction but minus the increasingly conservative PAS proper.
The “new Pakatan” will be a broader opposition movement that includes not just the opposition parties but also non-governmental organisations. The final shape of this reinvented opposition coalition is still unclear, but it promises to be more potent than the now-defunct PR – and is likely to be led once again by Anwar, from behind bars.
What we are witnessing is a reconstruction of the opposition landscape. But no matter how it turns out, the opposition forces will be divided into two blocs for as long as the original PAS remains outside PR 2.0. This leaves open the possibility of PAS linking up with Mr Najib’s Umno to create a Malay-Muslim political alliance, the so-called “unity government”.
At this point, this Umno-PAS link-up is only a theoretical possibility; even the new PAS – the more conservative version – has rejected the notion of a unity government with Umno. But this position may change, depending on how the political calculus evolves, both on the opposition front and on the Umno/BN side.
The emerging leadership crisis in Umno under Mr Najib may force PAS to recalculate. What all this means is that Malaysian politics is entering yet another phase of unpredictability.
All this is happening at two crucial junctures: First, the country is three years away from the next general election, not a long time, given the depth of the crisis on both sides of the political divide. Will they be able to recover in time – if at all – to position themselves for the polls and capture power?
On the BN side, Umno – as the pillar party – will have to shake off the severe damage arising from the controversy now surrounding Mr Najib. It must be said, however, that should he survive the 1MDB crisis, Mr Najib would be very hard to defeat politically.
Second, this mega-crisis is five years away from 2020 – the epochal timeline to mark Malaysia’s entry into developed economy status. Ironically, the Vision 2020 deadline was set by Dr Mahathir, the man who is now leading the charge to remove Mr Najib.
Dr Mahathir would be happier if it is anyone but Mr Najib as prime minister come 2020. Mr Najib has just shown that he intends to deny his former boss that wish.
Whatever happens going forward, the larger event to watch is the outcome of the “collision of coalitions” in Malaysian politics. Will the system stay the same, or a new political model emerge as a result?
•The writer is a senior fellow at the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.•