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News analysis

Najib tightens grip on power but hurts image with voters

His recent political moves send signal he is in control but do little for his political prestige

After more than a year on the political back foot, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is striking back hard at his detractors.

Emboldened by a series of election victories over the last two months, the Premier has moved to purge his opponents to emerge stronger than he has been since taking over the premiership in April 2009.

In the last 10 days, Datuk Seri Najib has turned the tables on his political foes, who were seeking his ouster for his deep involvement in the fiasco at state-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

First came the surprise announcement last week that the chief of the country's anti- corruption agency that led the corruption probe on 1MDB had decided to go into early retirement.

Mr Najib then trained his guns on the irritants in his ruling Umno, with the sacking of the party's current deputy president and former deputy premier Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir, the former chief minister of northern Kedah state and a son of former premier Mahathir Mohamad.


This photo taken in May shows Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission officers in the driveway of Mr Lim Guan Eng's bungalow. He was arrested ahead of his arraignment in court today on allegations of corruption. PHOTO: BERNAMA

 

The latest is Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is also the secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). He was arrested yesterday ahead of his arraignment in court today on allegations of corruption.

"He (Najib) is flexing, telling those within his party and the opposition that he is in charge and will brook no nonsense," says Mr Ibrahim Suffian, of independent polling firm Merdeka Center, who adds that the Premier's political strategy is aimed at solidifying his grip over his ruling party and government

But the strikeback is set to widen the trust deficit the Najib administration suffers with ordinary Malaysians.

"This whole campaign doesn't give the impression that the institutions are completely impartial because people will compare what is happening to (Lim) Guan Eng with 1MDB and Najib," argues Mr Ibrahim, echoing a widely held view among political analysts.

BAD IMPRESSION

This whole campaign doesn't give the impression that the institutions are completely impartial because people will compare what is happening to (Lim) Guan Eng with 1MDB and Najib.

MR IBRAHIM SUFFIAN, of independent polling firm Merdeka Center, echoing a widely held view among political analysts.

Only a year ago, Mr Najib was nearly ejected from power when his opponents, led by Tan Sri Muhyiddin, came close to forcing him to resign on allegations of corruption over the financial dealings at 1MDB and another state-owned entity known as SRC International.

Amid shocking international media reports of flagrant financial shenanigans and corruption at 1MDB, the embattled Premier bought time by removing Mr Muhyiddin as his No. 2 and installing a close ally, Mr Mohamed Apandi Ali, to the powerful position of Attorney-General.

Since then, Tan Sri Apandi has cleared the Premier of any wrongdoing.

Internationally, however, 1MDB has become the single-biggest public relations disaster for Malaysia with a state-owned fund at the centre of probes in at least seven countries over a complex web of financial dealings that forced Singapore to close a branch of a Swiss bank over charges of money laundering.

Mr Najib's latest moves appear designed to send a message that he is in control. But they aren't doing much for his political prestige.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2016, with the headline 'Najib tightens grip on power but hurts image with voters'. Print Edition | Subscribe