Malaysia heading to election but is PM to step down?
Scandal-tainted Najib Razak may have relative take his place
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak delivers his opening remarks during the Global Transformation Forum, a two-day international business conference in Kuala Lumpur on March 22. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is preparing to call snap general elections that could see him step down in favor of his cousin Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein.
On April 12 Najib appointed Hishammuddin, who already holds the defense portfolio, as 'Special Functions Minister' in the Prime Minister's Department, a post some interpret that puts him on equal footing as the premier's current deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on the premiership stakes.
Like Zahid, Hishammuddin, who will continue lead the Defense Ministry, is a United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) vice-president making him eligible for the premiership under the party's elaborate leadership protocol.
Salahuddin Ayub, deputy president of opposition Parti Amana Negara, has speculated that the appointment is to help pave the way for Najib to step down before the 14th general election due in the second half of next year but expected sooner.
Salahuddin believes the prime minister "has no other choice but to trust his cousin" to ensure the security of himself and his family after his resignation with repercussions of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal still hanging over him.
"Hishammuddin's appointment as special functions minister is a sign that Najib will step down as prime minister soon and Hishammuddin will take over as PM to ensure continuity and UMNO's lifeline in the coming general election," he tweeted shortly after Najib's announcement.
On April 15, Najib made the clearest sign yet that snap elections are in the offing when addressing a crowd gathered to witness the launching a government-backed housing scheme for the poor.
"We need a mandate from the people, the next general election is around the corner, either this year or next year. Going by the mood … (we) must make it fast, but we also have to ascertain the people's trust," Najib told the crowd in Kuala Nerus in the northern state of Terengganu, reported state news agency Bernama.
Poverty eradication schemes, such as the housing scheme for the poor, along with grants to farmers and smallholders are seen as pre-election courtship rituals directed at the rural electorate — the mainstay of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government.
Najib needs reassurance that his government still enjoys support following countless protests over the notorious 1MDB debacle, which many are calling the world's biggest financial scandal.
That outrage together with the fall in oil prices, a commodity Malaysia relies on to drive its growth, has impacted of country's economy. As of March, foreigner investors were continuing to dump Malaysian bonds, Reuters recently reported.
In March about US$6 billion of Malaysian debt had been sold by investors, their seventh consecutive and biggest sales since January 2011. Central bank data showed foreign sales of Malaysian bonds accelerated since November last year, according to Reuters.
Things are likely to get trickier economically. The depreciation of the ringgit has raised the cost of living, while wages remain stagnant and budget cuts slow the pace of development.
In the prime minister's April 15 speech, he called for support for his government and he appeared to acknowledge how the 1MDB scandal damaged him and his government.
He pleaded for the electorate not to view things emotionally but instead see how his government had "lift(ed) the economy", provided housing, public transport and upheld Islam.
"God willing, the people's confidence will return and we will make a bigger change…" he said.
Najib has made it clear that he has no qualms about playing the religious card when it comes to political survival either for him or his UMNO party regardless of the consequences for the country.
Over the years, it hasn't been hard to see that he has painted Muslims on one side and everybody else in the multi-cultural country on the other.
He treaded warily around a harsh Islamic law when it was tabled in parliament when it became clear his coalition government would be punished for it in the states of Sarawak and Sabah, which have large Christian populations.
His coalition government has had to rely on lawmakers and the electorate in both the states on Borneo Island to remain in power after the opposition denied them a two-third majority in parliament in the 2008 general election.
But make no mistake, whatever decision he makes about when parliament will be dissolved and elections held it is a decision made in his own political interest, not in the interests of the country.
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