KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s embattled premier is presiding over a tense ruling party assembly this week amid calls for his removal over a funding scandal that has left the party facing one of the biggest crises in its half-century rule.
Najib Razak is under fire over the revelation in July that nearly $700 million was transferred into his personal bank accounts, and allegations of smothering subsequent investigations while assuming draconian powers for himself.
Najib is believed to retain significant support from powerful party officials within his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), despite internal grumbling after the UMNO-controlled ruling coalition suffered its worst-ever general election showing in 2013.
Political analysts generally see his position as safe.
But the funds fiasco has raised the pressure, with some leading UMNO figures warning the party faces defeat in elections due by 2018 if Najib remains in charge.
Late Monday night former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who was purged from the cabinet after he called for transparency in the scandal, urged Najib to leave office until multiple investigations now under way are completed.
At a rally in Kuala Lumpur attended by hundreds of his supporters, he warned that UMNO risked losing the next election, and called for an end to “deep-rooted” money politics and patronage.
‘Do the right thing’
“Ask your moral conscience. Do the right thing for the interests of the people and the country,” Muhyiddin said in comments directed at Najib.
UMNO’s general assembly began in earnest on Wednesday and runs through the end of the week.
The political turmoil has rattled public and investor confidence in the government.
UMNO has dominated Malaysia through coalition governments since independence in 1957, often facing accusations of corruption, money politics and trampling of democratic rights.
But Najib, 62, the son of one of Malaysia’s founding fathers, is believed to retain the firm allegiance of the nearly 200 UMNO division chiefs who run the top-down party apparatus around the country.
“Najib has all of the important party machinery in his hand to keep this assembly under control,” said Saifuddin Abdullah, a former deputy minister under Najib who moved to the opposition amid the recent turmoil.
Najib last week called for unity, saying people should “stop spreading and believing slander.”
Muhyiddin has been barred from speaking at the assembly, which is expected to be tightly controlled.
“It’s sad, because it shows the direction of the party. But there many people who are afraid of what could happen to the party if it splits, so they stick with Najib,” said Saifuddin.
Also working in Najib’s favor is disarray within the opposition after its former leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed in February for five years on sodomy charges.
The case has been widely criticized, including by the US State Department.
Najib is expected to neutralize any internal party challenges.
But UMNO is seen facing an uphill task to restore confidence, exacerbated by public dissatisfaction over rising living costs and his handling of the economy.
Last month Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, an UMNO vice president, said the party “is now facing a trust test, which is very complicated and worrying.”
Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent polling firm Merdeka Center, said overcoming this is “going to be a big challenge, but (UMNO’s coalition) has huge advantages in controlling the levers of power and there is still time (before the elections).”
Najib has yet to detail the source or purpose of the nearly $700 million that was put into his bank account shortly before the 2013 elections, which his coalition narrowly won.
The discovery followed months of allegations that huge sums were missing from a state-owned company Najib launched.
Najib and the company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), both vehemently deny any wrongdoing.
Last week parliament rushed through a bill giving the premier sweeping powers to suspend civil liberties in the name of security.
The opposition called it a blatant move by Najib to shore up his power that took Malaysia down the “road to dictatorship.”