Malaysia's leading ethnic party names a scandal-ridden party hack as its head and the country's leader
On Friday, Malaysia is scheduled to end months of waiting to announce its new prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, after the United Malays National Organisation, the country's biggest ethnic party named him their leader during their annual convention.
Najib told the UMNO parley, held in Kuala Lumpur last week, that it is crucial that his party reform itself or it will lose its hold on the electorate. But Najib's history, and that of the party itself, portends instead a return to the politics and practices that got the national ruling coalition into trouble in the first place, losing its historic two-thirds majority in the national parliament in national elections last year. Najib's ascent to power more likely represents a clear preference by UMNO stalwarts to return to cronyism, money politics and corruption after an eight-year interregnum from the authoritarian reign of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The new prime minister's history may make it problematical whether the leaders of major countries are going to want to be seen with him. Concerns include hundreds of millions of dollars in questionable contracts steered to UMNO cronies and friends, not to mention continuing allegations of his involvement in the murder of the Mongolian translator Altantuya Shaariibuu following the controversial purchase of French submarines and, more recently, his role in sabotaging the opposition in the state of Perak and his shuttering newspapers and thwarting opposition candidates during his own party's elections last week.
The convention itself was a good example. Opponents of the Najib team were denied places on the ballot by a panel supposedly charged with cleaning up money politics, although they let Najib's allies slide by after having committed the same offenses. The result was that the deputy president, Muhyiddin Yassin, and all three vice presidents are from the Najib faction although the Najib forces were unable to prevent Khairy Jamaluddin, the son-in-law of ousted Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmand Badawi, from becoming head of the important UMNO Youth wing. They also were unable to stop Shahrizat Abdul Jalil from defeating longtime party hack Rafidah Aziz to take over the Wanita, the women's wing of the party, also a Badawi ally.
The final election night erupted into name-calling, with allies of Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the former prime minister, charging that Khairy had bought the votes to make him head of UMNO Youth. Mahathir Mohamad himself railed against the two candidates against his son, calling them corrupt. Rais Yatim, the foreign minister, who lost out in one of the vice president races, demanded that UMNO's disciplinary board investigate the entire new supreme council over allegations that they had delivered gifts and money to delegates in the effort to win their seats. Mahathir Mohamad has repeatedly launched furious attacks on UMNO leaders, calling them corrupt although he showed up at the last night of the convention to be seen with Najib and others.
The UMNO-owned New Straits Times described the top party positions as having "given much-needed breathing space to Najib as he sets out to unite UMNO and push the party to undertake the reforms he has promised. He will have less of a task to deal with the factionalism that so often arises after a bitterly fought contest in the party." But in fact, UMNO appears to be as much riven by factional politics as it was going into the convention.
As early as April 8, the party faces the first of three important by-elections – one for a seat in the Dewan Rakyat, or national assembly, and two more for state legislative seats. The first test is for a Perak seat in which support for the Barisan appears to be waning.
"The problem is not the opposition, but within our own ranks," a local leader told the Kuala Lumpur-based website Malaysia Insider, referring to the perennial problem of factionalism within Umno.
Najib has sought to nullify the opposition with force. Last Monday, a rally led by Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim was broken up by police who fired tear gas at the audience. Other rallies have been cancelled as well. Two opposition newspapers were cancelled until after April 8, the date of the Perak national by-election, presumably because the two papers have hammered away at allegations of Najib's connections with the two men on trial for killing Altantuya in October of 2006 and her role in the €1 billion purchase of French submarines that netted one of his closest friends €114 million in "commissions."
To say Najib brings considerable baggage with him is an understatement. While attention has focused on allegations of corruption in the submarine purchases, the fact is that as defense minister from 1999 to 2008, Najib presided over a cornucopia of defense deals that poured a river of money into the coffers of his close friends and UMNO cronies. A September 24, 2007 story in Asia Sentinel quoted Foreign Policy in Focus, a think tank supported by the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, as saying that "many foreign arms manufacturers generally used well-connected Malaysians as their lobbyists for contracts."
Three contracts approved under Najib have been widely cited by the opposition and fit well into Foreign in Policy in Focus's patronage scale. They have been forced back into public attention by his ascension to the premiership and by the exoneration under questionable circumstances of Abdul Razak Baginda, one of his closest friends, for Altantuya's murder.
Spending for defense accelerated across the board after Najib, called "the driving force" behind Malaysia's military modernization program by Foreign Policy in Focus. The shopping list, the think tank reported, "includes battle tanks from Poland, Russian and British surface-to-air missiles and mobile military bridges, Austrian Steyr assault rifles and Pakistani anti-tank missiles. Kuala Lumpur was also negotiating to buy several F/A 18s, the three French submarines and Russian Suhkoi Su-30 fighter aircraft.