Najib Razak, the former Malaysian prime minister convicted of money laundering linked to the 1MDB scandal, could capitalise on an early general election victory to avoid imprisonment, the country’s opposition leader has warned.
Anwar Ibrahim, one of Malaysia’s longest-serving and most prominent politicians, said some members of Najib’s party were trying to bring forward the 2023 election so they could consolidate power and influence the judiciary.
“They are pushing for quick elections,” Anwar said in an interview with the Financial Times. “My question is: to do what? To continue to steal and save yourselves from likely imprisonment? Because in the case of Najib . . . he has been convicted.”
The embezzlement of billions of dollars from the 1MDB state fund, revealed in 2015, shook the financial world and prompted Najib’s ousting as prime minister.
After a US jury convicted former Goldman Sachs banker Roger Ng in connection with the fraud this year, upcoming hearings in Malaysia will be seen as a test of the country’s judicial system.
In state elections in recent months, however, Najib has returned to campaigning for his party, the United Malays National Organisation. The former leader, who is still a member of parliament but no longer holds a government position, remains on bail as he appeals against a 12-year sentence handed down in 2020.
The success of Umno, which leads a ruling coalition, in the regional polls has prompted speculation that it could pursue an early general election to capitalise on the momentum. Najib’s appeal is due to be heard in August, while Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the party’s president, is on trial for alleged corruption.
“We will have to fight that,” said Anwar, the leader of Pakatan Harapan, Malaysia’s largest opposition coalition. “There must be rule of law in this country. We cannot be seen to be a laughing stock for the international community.”
Last month, Anwar was criticised for appearing in a one-on-one TV debate with Najib. The opposition leader said he had to agree in advance not to reference 1MDB or any court cases.
“I’m a democrat. I was challenged. I can’t see why, because he’s been charged, I can’t accept,” he added. “I was reluctant, of course, to have a debate with him. I normally debate with prime ministers.”
Hwok-Aun Lee, a Malaysia researcher at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, agreed there could be a “self-preservation” motive for Najib to seek an imminent election.
Although Najib’s appeal still had to be heard, Malaysians were “not taking anything for granted”, he added, pointing to a protest by lawyers last week against a probe into the judge who convicted the former prime minister.
Umno’s recent successes have dealt a further blow to the 74-year-old Anwar, once seen as Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting. He has been thwarted on multiple occasions by jail terms and charges of sodomy and sexual assault that he maintains were politically motivated.
Following a decades-long quest to secure the premiership, Anwar conceded the next election may be his final chance.
“We cannot allow Umno to win,” he said. “I am determined to give my best to fight against this endemic corruption and the use of elections as a ploy to safeguard the interests of the corrupt.”
Some of his own allies, however, question the likelihood of him succeeding.
“Even though my party backs him as prime minister, the backing is lukewarm at best,” said a member of parliament who belongs to the same political coalition.
“He has not been in a position of power in over 20 years. He has not had to make these difficult administrative decisions at a federal level and live up to what he says.”
Calls for an immediate election are far from unanimous across Umno. Anwar believes an election is unlikely to be called before the budget in September. “To be realistic, [Najib] should be thinking and prepared for the ultimate imprisonment,” he warned.
Umno and a spokesperson for Najib did not respond to requests for comment.
Source: Financial Times