Dennis Ignatius: Holding an entire nation hostage

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Najib and Zahid waging a desperate legal, political and publicity battle for survival.

Malaysia has been experiencing unprecedented political instability. Much of it can be traced back to the efforts of two men – Najib Tun Razak and Zahid Hamidi – who are waging a desperate legal, political and publicity battle to escape the array of corruption, money laundering and abuse of power charges against them. It’s an all-out, high-stakes, no-holds- barred battle for survival.

Former prime minister Najib’s goose is all but cooked. The High Court has already convicted him and sentenced him to 12 years imprisonment. The Court of Appeal ruled against him as well; the Federal Court will now have the final say. His days as a free man may well be numbered.

Former deputy prime minister and current UMNO president Zahid, facing trial on 87 charges of bribery, corruption, criminal breach of trust and money-laundering, is also waging the fight of his life. If found guilty, he could spend the better part of the rest of his life behind bars.

Even as their lawyers wage an unparalleled legal battle in the courts, both men are going all out to discredit the justice system. They have repeatedly asserted that all the charges against them are politically motivated, that the system is biased against them, and in Najib’s case, that the judge is corrupt. The MACC, an agency that has long since lost its credibility, has begun investigating the judge. As a consequence of these actions, our justice system is facing its gravest test since 1988 when Dr Mahathir Mohamad decapitated the judiciary.

At the same time, both men have stepped up efforts to find a political solution to their problems by seeking to install a government that would be more sympathetic to their plight. They’ll keep on destabilising the political system until they get the government they want. Having brought down both the Mahathir and Muhyiddin administration, they are now going after the Ismail Sabri government.

In the hope of forcing Ismail Sabri’s hand, they triggered early elections in Melaka and Johor. Now they are trying every trick in the book to get him to advise the king to call for early elections. They’ve even offered him the post of prime minister should UMNO win. But Ismail Sabri doesn’t trust them, and with good reason.

Ismail Sabri, the accidental prime minister, has surprised everyone by demonstrating time and again that he is no pushover. Behind that quiet demeanour is an ambitious man who has his eyes on the party presidency as well as a very long stay at Sri Perdana. Until he has consolidated his position and power, he has little reason to throw a lifeline to either Najib or Zahid.

In the meantime, the sacking of UMNO Supreme Council member Tajuddin Abdul Rahman, a strong supporter of Ismail Sabri, has brought into the open the long-simmering power struggle going on within UMNO. UMNO is now deeply divided. The cabinet cluster – UMNO members in Ismail Sabri’s cabinet – have no love for Zahid. They think he is a liability and ought to step aside in favour of Ismail Sabri.

If Zahid had the best interests of his party at heart, he would step aside and allow Ismail Sabri to consolidate his position, respond to voter disquiet over rising food prices and stabilize the political situation before calling for fresh elections. It is the best chance for UMNO to win big on its own.

But desperate men like Zahid only care about saving themselves. Zahid knows that if he loses the presidency, he is finished. Najib might be able to hope for a royal pardon; Zahid, if he is convicted, is unlikely to be so lucky.

Attention is now shifting to how the Registrar of Societies (ROS) will respond to UMNO’s request to postpone the party elections till after GE15. ROS is a government agency under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Its decision will be whatever serves the interest of the prime minister and his supporters.

The ball is now in Ismail Sabri’s court. If ROS rejects UMNO’s request, there will be an immediate all-out battle within UMNO for the top post. Given that the power of the prime minister’s office is Ismail Sabri’s to wield, he might have an edge. If he wins, it would spell the beginning of the end of the court cluster and their destructive influence on national affairs. – Dennis Ignatius