KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's rotating monarchy has played an outsized role in politics, helping determine the prime minister. Now the king may be ex-premier Najib Razak's last chance to walk free for his crimes related to 1MDB.
Najib, 69, began serving time in prison from Tuesday (Aug 23) after Malaysia's top court upheld his 2020 conviction for corruption in relation to 1MDB, a troubled state fund from which billions were siphoned.
The next day, 300 of his staunchest supporters gathered at the palace to formally ask King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah to grant Najib a pardon, claiming the judiciary had conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, Najib's opponents started an online campaign to persuade the king not to issue a pardon, arguing that the sentence is a deterrent against corruption for future leaders. They collected nearly 100,000 online signatures in over two days.
Najib has yet to file a petition but if granted, this will end the 12-year prison sentence for the political heavyweight who has stayed popular with voters and commands influence within the ruling Umno.
For the king, giving such a pardon poses a conundrum since it risks angering a wide segment of the population who want the court judgements respected.
"He needs to assess the current situation so as not to create discomfort among Malaysians as Najib has only just been imprisoned," said Dr Awang Azman Awang Pawi, an associate professor with the Academy of Malay Studies at University Malaya who has more than 20 years experience in the field.
The case for a royal pardon, he said, becomes more difficult when Najib faces four other trials related to 1MDB, which has gone down in history as one of the world's biggest financial scandals.
It would not be the first time Malaysia's king, selected among nine royal families every five years, gets petitioned to pardon a politician. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was initially rejected by the king when he sought a royal pardon months after he was found guilty and jailed under a colonial-era sodomy law in 2015.
Mr Anwar got his pardon three years later when then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad publicly supported his petition after their parties ousted Umno in a shock election win in 2018. In Najib's case, there is no indication yet that Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob will back a petition for a royal pardon.
"It depends on what sort of deal Najib can get with Ismail Sabri and whether the PM will support him," said Dr James Chin, a professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania who specialises in governance issues in South-east Asia.
"The calculation is whether it will impact the Malay voters in the rural areas, and whether you impact the vote for Umno," he said.
Before his jailing, Najib had rehabilitated his image as a man of the people and led Umno to a string of victories in polls in semi-urban and rural states dominated by Malays. He and other Umno leaders have pushed Mr Ismail to bring forward elections that must be held by September 2023 to build on the political momentum but the prime minister has resisted, saying he wants to focus on fighting inflation first.
Traditionally, the king is seen as the defender of the Muslim faith and is widely revered by the Malays who make up more than 60 per cent of 33 million population. He has increasingly flexed his political muscle since 2020 when Dr Mahathir abruptly resigned as prime minister, moving in to name Mr Muhyiddin Yassin as the next leader without a parliamentary vote.
Less than a year later, mounting anger over the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy forced Mr Muhyiddin and his Cabinet to resign and the king stepped into the political fray again, this time appointing Mr Ismail. His decision saw Umno retake the reins of power following a two year absence.
Many leaders in Umno privately want the king to pardon Najib but it will take some time to see through the process. Najib has to serve some jail time first before getting his pardon though he has to make the petition within 14 days from the date of the appeal decision or else he loses his parliament seat.
If he fails to get a pardon, he will be disqualified from the elections for five years after he is released from jail. The king deliberates on petitions in consultation with the pardons board.
Dr Mahathir told Bloomberg News earlier this week that he saw a "50-50 chance" that Najib would eventually get a pardon.
Najib is likely to go for a full pardon that erases any conviction and disqualifications that come with it.
"It is an executive decision and is fully in the hands of the monarch," said Mr Salim Bashir Bhaskaran, a practising criminal lawyer and former president of the Malaysian Bar.
"He has the sole prerogative to take all the circumstances, the gravity of the case, and the character of the convict into account before deciding to grant a pardon or a reprieve."