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Saturday, March 5, 2016

How viable is the Malaya's anti-Najib movement?

It’s been quite a week for followers of Malaysian politics. On Monday, Mahathir Mohamad announced his exit from Umno. Shockwaves rolled through cyberspace. Reports that his name topped Google search terms nationwide came in a day after the announcement, and public figures went into overdrive speculating on the effect the former premier’s surprise move would have.

The move, Mahathir said, was made in light of the party’s support for what he saw as intolerable in the decisions and actions of Prime Minister Najib Razak, particularly with regard to the RM2.6 billion and 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandals. “The organisation that is led by Najib today is no longer the Umno which was founded on May 11, 1946,” he said.

The shock was compounded a few days later by Muhyiddin Yassin’s announcement that he would stay in Umno despite being suspended from his position as the party’s deputy president for his vocal criticism of Najib. Also staying put in Umno are Shafie Apdal and Mukhriz Mahathir, each of whom has paid his price for being a dissenter.

Yes, it’s been a busy week in Malaysian politics, and the question that’s probably foremost on the minds of most Malaysians is: What does all of this mean?

Not counting his expulsion from Umno after the May 13 disaster, this is the second time Mahathir has pulled a stunt like this. The last time he left Umno was in 2008. It was to show his displeasure with the performance of his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. To the cynical observer, it could have looked like something out of a 12-year-old’s playbook – “I don’t want to friend you anymore” – but the ruse worked. Abdullah willingly resigned from office in 2009, and Mahathir rejoined the party afterwards.

Six years later, it seems we’re back at the same crossroads.

Things are different now, though. Najib, unlike Abdullah, is defiant and much more entrenched. This time, Mahathir is not dealing with a soft spoken, passive leader. He faces almost an entire Umno leadership arrayed against him.

Najib has fended off every attempt to get him to resign for the past year or so, which is no mean feat considering the global uproar around his involvement with 1MDB. His deputy, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, is a staunch party defender with no less of a strong, authoritarian streak. Umno Supreme Council member Abdul Rahman Dahlan said that there would be “tears no more” for Mahathir’s exit, and that Umno would survive any attempt to destabilise it, including resignations.

Najib has weathered a great deal worse than Abdullah had to, which lends credence to his strength. “Tun Mahathir’s action is not a new trend, is not surprising and I am convinced Umno can handle him,” said former deputy education minister Mohd Puad Zarkashi. “Umno will mature and unite following Mahathir’s actions.”

However, Mahathir isn’t alone. Muhyiddin and company are his allies, despite their electing to stay and fight from within. Zaid Ibrahim is another confirmed ally, and Mahathir has already agreed to attend Zaid’s closed-door March 27 gathering against Najib. Even the Opposition is with him in this.

Mahathir has, perhaps shockingly, declared his willingness to work with Opposition leaders. During his time in power, he sent DAP strongman Lim Kit Siang to detention in Kamunting under the Internal Security Act. Last Tuesday, Lim confirmed that he had discussed the “current national situation” with Mahathir and Zaid. Mahathir also said in a recent Bloomberg Business interview that he would work with anybody – even Anwar Ibrahim – if it is for national interest.

The week climaxed with the official formation of a core group of prominent leaders aimed at ousting Najib and “saving Malaysia.” Besides Mahathir, Mukhriz and Muhyiddin, signatories to the “Citizens’ Declaration” included Lim Kit Siang, Tian Chua, and Nurul Izzah. Tengku Razaleigh, another of Mahathir’s famous enemies, was notably also a signatory.

It seems that Mahathir has amassed quite a number of supporters in his crusade against Najib. “Never in the history of the nation have all political parties in the Opposition united behind a former prime minister, once their sworn enemy,” observed former information minister Zainuddin Maidin. However, the question remains: Will it be enough?

Besides Najib’s considerable strength of position, there are other reasons why this cooperation may prove fruitless. It is one thing to speak of cooperating as leaders across parties; to actually oust Najib is another. The Opposition remains extremely fragmented and politically shaky. PAS remains out of the picture for now, given party president Hadi Awang’s wish to “be good with Umno.” PAS splinter group Amanah’s participation in the core group also poses another deterrent to cooperation with PAS.

Whatever movement is formed against Najib will need to be more united than Umno as well as politically stronger. As much as some may hope that will happen, it simply isn’t the reality for now.

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