Najib's court conviction puts Umno, biggest party in Malaysian government, at crossroads

Despite calls from Umno's former youth leader to "move on" from Najib Razak, many senior leaders have publicly shown their support instead, following the conviction.
Despite calls from Umno's former youth leader to "move on" from Najib Razak, many senior leaders have publicly shown their support instead, following the conviction.PHOTO: BERNAMA

KUALA LUMPUR - The biggest party in the Malaysian government has found itself at a crossroads after former Umno president Najib Razak was convicted of corruption and money laundering in a historic decision by the High Court on Tuesday (July 28).

Despite calls from Umno's former youth leader to "move on" from Najib - who is currently disqualified from contesting any elections - many senior leaders have publicly shown their support instead, following the conviction.

Party president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said his party would have to "do something" following the verdict, and on Wednesday hinted at reevaluating the party's "sharing arrangement" in the government.

"When honesty and kindness is set aside, any sharing arrangement should be reevaluated," Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid wrote on his Facebook account, with a picture of him offering prayers.

In a statement later on Wednesday, Mr Ahmad Zahid said that "serious attention" should be given to the judgement of the court.

"Umno/BN will overcome this judgement in the best way while defending our relationships within BN, Muafakat Nasional and Perikatan Nasional," he said.

His statement came a day after former Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin- a Cabinet minister in Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin's government- urged the party to "move on" and rebuild.

Mr Khairy had challenged Mr Ahmad Zahid for Umno's presidency following the party's historic loss in the 2018 elections, but failed. Mr Khairy, the son-in-law of ex-premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, is often seen as the face of moderation within the Malay nationalist party.

Umno is the biggest component in the five-month old Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin, with 38 MPs.

In contrast, Mr Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, the second biggest part in the Perikatan Nasional administration, has 32 MPs.

Analysts said that Umno is currently divided, with different camps pushing the party in different directions, but asserted that Najib still holds sway within the party despite his graft conviction.

"Reality is Umno is divided. Some want to leave Perikatan (Nasional). Some want to move on, and not drag this (Najib) case (with them)," Universiti Utara Malaysia analyst, Professor Dr Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani, told The Straits Times.

The current Umno No 2 - Mohamad Hassan - who flanked Najib at court on Tuesday, had previously called for a snap election to be held in order to return the mandate to the people, underlining the party's fragile relationship with PN.

Umno supreme council member Puad Zakarshi on Wednesday also criticised Mr Muhyiddin's administration following the court decision, seemingly questioning why only Umno politicians are facing charges and not leaders from Bersatu, Mr Muhyiddin's party.

 
 
 

However, one partner that both Umno and Najib seem to have firmly on their side is PAS, with whom they have another partnership called Muafakat Nasional. Umno leaders such as Mr Puad have asserted that Umno is better off on a Muafakat Nasional platform than with Perikatan.

PAS leaders, including president Hadi Awang, visited Najib at his home immediately after the court proceedings on Tuesday, with Mr Najib describing them as "true friends".

Datuk Seri Hadi expressed confidence that Mr Najib would be able to clear his name in the higher courts.

Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said: "Umno along with PAS actually won 75 per cent of Malay votes in the last election. The mistake was PAS split Umno's votes. But now that they are together, you are seeing them win a string of by-elections."

Dr Oh said that Najib is still a "plus" for Umno even though he is currently unable to contest an election, and some factions within the party would not mind if it were to set the former premier aside.

Dr Azizuddin said that Najib could still field his son, also an Umno member, to replace him in his home constituency of Pekan should he be unable to contest in elections, and as a result, maintain his influence.

"As a former prime minister, he can influence Umno's decision. He can pull off something to show he can still dictate things in the party. However, this is subject to Umno allowing it to happen," he said.

 
 
 

Mr Shazwan Mustafa Kamal, a senior associate at Vriens & Partners, noted: "There are those within Umno who have held the view that Najib is becoming more baggage than asset, and the party's efforts should be focused towards strengthening the party's position within PN."

He said while Najib could still utilise his pull to garner support among Malays, it would be a challenge to convince voters that he is a victim of persecution.

"There's too much bad press on him already, which may give the impression of UMNO 'defending the indefensible.' But the litmus test for UMNO would be to start a new chapter and to take stock of its current pool of leaders and decide where the party goes from here," Mr Shazwan said.