• Three years after being booted from office amid a global financial scandal, the disgraced former leader’s brand, and that of his Umno party, is resurrecting

  • Najib’s second coming has parallels to Mahathir’s messianic return. In his case it is based on an appeal to nostalgia for a pre-Covid, more prosperous time

D-E-A-D. That was the state of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak’s political career on May 10, 2018.

His party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), had just lost a general election for the first time since independence, ending 61 years of political monopoly.

On that day, Najib, heir to a long line of Umno leaders, faced the terrible fall of his party and of his own name.

The former prime minister is of noble descent and the second generation of Umno politicians: his father Tun Razak was the second prime minister, his uncle Hussein Onn was the third, and his cousin Hishammuddin Hussein has occupied several ministerial posts and is the current minister of foreign affairs.

Many believed then that Najib, embedded in the 1MDB financial scandal, would be jailed within a few months.

In 2018, the new attorney general, Tommy Thomas, appointed by Najib’s rival Mahathir Mohamad, initiated the prosecution against Najib, who was soon charged on several counts of abuse of power and corruption.

Last year, Najib was sentenced to 12 years in jail and a US$50 million fine after being found guilty of criminal breach of trust, abuse of power and money laundering, a decision his lawyer appealed to the higher court.

If not postponed, the court’s decision will be heard in a few days, on December 8. However, on Thursday Najib’s lawyer announced he had filed a new motion to ask the court to postpone its decision for the courts to take into account the discoveries of the investigation into the role played by the former Bank Negara governor Zeti Akthar Aziz, and her husband and sons, had not been taken into account in the court proceedings.

However, only three years after reaching the shores of hell, Umno’s titan has regained popularity. The flamboyant victory of Umno and its Barisan Nasional coalition partners in the Malacca state polls has reinforced predictions of its victory in the next general election.

Speaking to this writer last week, Najib explained: “[Malacca] was a game changer. [We are] still a good brand.”

That begs the question: if Umno is still a good brand, and the former prime minister is its ambassador, could Najib be Malaysia’s next prime minister?

A test run

In the past few weeks, Najib has battled his campaign in Malacca. The polls were a test run as much for the party as for Najib, who was the poster boy of this election.

Umno won the state with a two-thirds majority, a score beyond the expectation of the party’s leaders. Analysis of the results showed that in terms of vote share the Barisan Nasional’s success was relative and the coalition largely benefitted from the first-past-the-post system.

But the curious case of Najib’s resurrection goes beyond hard data, and into the realm of public perception.

Despite his terrible political crash in 2018, a global financial scandal, and a pending bankruptcy and prison sentence, Najib is still standing.

Months prior to the fall of his government in 2018, his former ally Mahathir had left the party to create Bersatu and join the opposition coalition.

Mahathir had crafted a new narrative for himself: a messianic return to politics “to save Malaysia” from Najib’s “kleptocracy”.

After being painted as “evil” by the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Mahathir, and despite being in legal limbo since he lost the elections, Najib has regained popularity among his supporters and among many Malay voters.

In the current pandemic context, Najib is seen by many (even outside of his pool of Umno voters) as a credible critical voice on matters pertaining to economic recovery.

This year, and in the absence of an alternative, Najib was able to retake centre stage by fiercely criticising the (now fallen) government led by Muhyiddin Yassin.

It seemed as if the ill-feelings against Najib had then switched to Muyhiddin, who had no popular mandate, was in a battle with the king, and was widely criticised for declaring a state of emergency for his own political agenda.

Najib and Mahathir have more in common than they would care to admit as both have re-written their own narratives.

While Mahathir (self-)transformed his autocratic legacy into a democratic one, Najib is on the way to rebuild his name from kleptocrat to democrat.

Indeed, in a grand plan to return to power, as Mahathir did before him, Najib is slowly taking over a new messianic narrative “to save the Malaysian economy”.

Najib, nicknamed Bossku [“my boss”] by his supporters, is, in his own words, a “man of the people” who is pledging “political transparency”.

That’s a comforting message for Malaysia, which like the rest of the world, is facing many pandemic related uncertainties and where the working and middle classes are under tremendous strain.

Nostalgia for pre-Covid times overlaps with a yearning for the more prosperous era perceived to have ended with the change of government in 2018, even if in truth the matter is more complex.

In the absence of a welfare state, Najib and his system of generous financial aid allocations known as BR1M (Bantuan Rakyat 1 Malaysia) are seen by the many who need them as the next best thing.

As Najib himself explained: “[People] yearn for the Barisan Nasional days under my care … We were giving help across the spectrum.”

Ironically, the man accused of the largest corruption scheme in the history of the country is also seen as the one who shared the most of the state’s resources.

Such narratives play on people’s imagination; and when these stories echo people’s expectations for solutions, protection, or change, they work.

Still, while leaders can build new narratives and create new perceptions, can they really (re-)build legitimacy?

Legitimacy is a feeling that builds between one person, or group, and another. It is not a static state but rather a dynamic relationship.

The acceptance of political power by people is conditioned by legitimacy. If power is not seen as legitimate, then it is questioned.

In a system where the coercion is very high the acceptance of the leader may be faked by the people who fear repression; and thus, they do not question its legitimacy – until they do, as in Syria or Tunisia in 2011.

Though, in Malaysia, the system of coercion of the Mahathir era (1981-2003) has slowly faded, even if some of its laws remain.

The system of legitimation of power is a complex mechanism that involves rhetorical strategies to appeal to people’s political imagination.

It is by using this cognitive mechanism that leaders, in general, can regain or retain power, and this despite all controversies and contradictions.

As such, Najib has been able to maintain, and maybe restore, his legitimacy in a context that seemed, at first, not favourable to him.

His narrative, according to which he is the victim of Mahathir’s political machinations, has gained attention in some circles.

Similar accusations against Mahathir were made repeatedly by Anwar Ibrahim and disseminated by international media for two decades.

Framed in this way, Najib would be another victim of Mahathir’s political revenge. Though this time, the international media does not support Najib’s story.

However, the legal developments in Najib’s case over the past few months have contributed to his narrative.

For him, “some revelations were made in court and people see me more as a victim than a mastermind … Others just remember my time of prosperity [when] people received a lot of benefits”.

A few weeks ago, Mahathir declared that if the court proceedings were not hastened, Najib could be in the running to become the next prime minister.

Until then, only Najib had mentioned that possibility.

Far from damaging Najib’s scheme, Mahathir has brought it into the mainstream. Najib may or may not become the next prime minister but now more than ever everything seems possible.

This article first appeared on scmp.com

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