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The court decision issued on 28 July finding former Prime Minister Najib Razak guilty of having diverted USD 9.87 from a subsidiary of state development fund 1MDB into his personal bank account may deliver some popular benefits to the current PM, Muhyiddin Yassin. Specifically, he can now deflect any criticism that support for his premiership from Najib’s party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), was premised on potential concessions in Najib’s corruption trial. Also, more broadly, he can claim that his administration respects the judiciary’s independence.
Since the 1MDB issue and the corruption allegations against Najib had resonated strongly during the 2018 general elections, Muhyiddin can at least publicly claim that he has remained consistent with his election stance, when he was still with the opposition prior to its surprise victory.
At the same time, however, it likely complicates, at least for the near term, the maneuvering that he will have to do behind the scenes in the ruling National Alliance (PN). An election around the end of the year remains a possibility, but whether Muhyiddin decides to call one may be significantly dependent on whether the prime minister is assured of support by the three main parties in his coalition. There are signs that the verdict was a surprise for many party members of UMNO, which creates the risk that politicians aligned with Najib could spread dissent within the party.
After all, although Najib was not publicly popular, he protected his base among many of UMNO’s senior politicians and powerful division chiefs for almost a decade; whether they or the UMNO backbenchers have sympathy to rally together in support of him remains to be seen.
Muhyiddin’s challenge is to not only head this problem off, but to convince UMNO politicians not associated with the 1MDB controversy that their electoral path forward lies with a Najib-less future for the party. For instance, Khairy Jalamuddin, the son-in-law of former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, whom Najib replaced, said the court decision was “a moment for UMNO, as a political party to move forward and undergo a rejuvenation process.”
While courting UMNO, Muhyiddin will have to ensure that his allies in his Bersatu party, which jumped from the erstwhile ruling Alliance of Hope (PH) in February, are not neglected in the negotiation of future election plans and allocation of seats. A miscalculation in either could lead to a shakier political coalition.
Najib will certainly appeal and he will retain his parliamentary seat in the meantime, but until it is resolved he will be barred from running should Muhyiddin call an election.