Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi charged over corruption as Umno’s implosion continues
- Several prominent Umno members have been charged over corruption and six of its 54 members of parliament have resigned
- Observers believe Umno’s disintegration could result in one-coalition federal rule, given the lack of any other viable opposition
Malaysia’s former ruling party faced yet another blow to its leadership on Friday when its president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi was charged in court with criminal breach of trust, abuse of power, and money laundering. The charges were the latest in an anti-corruption dragnet that has also led to the arrests of several political leaders, including former premier Najib Razak and party supreme council member Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim.
Zahid was arrested yesterday by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission after several rounds of questioning. The lawmaker claimed trial to 45 counts of corruption and money-laundering in connection to the misappropriation of some 114 million ringgit (US$27 million) in funds, some of which came from his family-run charity Yayasan Akal Budi, of which he is the chairman.
If found guilty, Zahid could face up to 20 years in prison, caning and a fine. Najib, who is also facing a series of corruption charges, was present at court earlier to show support for his former deputy.
The question of Zahid’s future has wider implications as it directly affects his party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), of which he became president earlier this year after Najib stepped down due to the party’s performance in the elections.
With the charging of several prominent Umno members for corruption and the resignation of six of its 54 members of parliament, the former ‘grand old party’ of Malaysian politics risks becoming irrelevant.
Umno formerly chaired Malaysia’s oldest coalition, Barisan Nasional, before the pact was decimated in the May general elections that led to opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan forming government for the first time after 61 years of Barisan Nasional rule. It then proceeded to form a loose alliance with the nation’s conservative Islamic party, PAS – a party which had long been its enemy – to lobby for the conservative Malay vote. PAS had previously promised to institute an Islamic government if it came to power.
However, insiders report the party is in disarray and has split into factions – a liberal camp keen to reinvent the party in the hopes of future electoral success and upset over its alliance with PAS, and a camp as yet unable to accept its towering defeat that believes they are being singled out for their political views by former Umno strongman Mahathir Mohamad, who resigned to start his own party in 2016.
“We are being unfairly targeted by the new government,” supreme council member Lokman Noor Adam said.
“They are doing this to pressure Umno members of parliament into becoming independents, so that they have enough numbers to deny Anwar Ibrahim as prime minister,” he claimed, referring to a rumour that democracy icon Anwar Ibrahim, who has recently re-entered active politics and is slated to become prime minister in 2020, is working behind the scenes to command the majority on confidence votes in the house.
“They want our members of parliament to support Mahathir in case Anwar calls for a no-confidence motion,” he claimed, adding that Umno would persevere with or without senior leaders who had recently quit the party, referring to the recent resignations of long-serving former cabinet ministers Mustapa Mohamed and Anifah Aman, who cited Umno’s unwillingness to change and courtship of PAS as part reason for leaving.
“We have plenty of leaders in Umno, if senior members who want to leave, sure, go ahead. We will carry on fighting despite adversity,” he said.
Lokman and other Umno members organised a solidarity rally for Zahid the previous night, where Zahid’s daughter Nurulhidayah spoke in support of her father.
“Where are our Reformasi friends from before? That night, people were locked up by the same man – Mahathir Mohamad. Where are the reformists? Where is Anwar Ibrahim who defends reformation?” she asked, referencing the reformist political movement sparked by Anwar’s 1998 sacking by then-premier Mahathir and subsequent arrest on what he claims were trumped up charges to scupper his political career.
She also posted videos on social media showing her young children defending their grandfather, along with clips of Zahid praying and making tea with his family.
A party insider dismissed Lokman’s view of Umno’s “adversity”.
“Two successive presidents have been arrested for having money in their accounts and spending cash that’s not theirs on personal expenses,” the source said. “What adversity is this apart from being self-inflicted? We should let the law take its course rather than pre-empt by saying they are trumped up charges.”
Opposition leader Zahid comfortably secured the Umno presidency this June, beating Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and former youth minister Khairy Jamaluddin for the job. He said Umno was the “government-in-waiting” and that he would lead the party back to power.
However, according to Ibrahim Suffian of independent pollster Merdeka Centre, the charges against Zahid will set Umno back further and sharpen the scrutiny of the leadership.
“It will create adverse perceptions even among its own members, creating question marks about the sustainability of the party’s leadership moving forward. The bad days are not over yet, especially as the government is coming down hard on corruption and their efforts to weed it out are unlikely to stop at just Zahid,” he said.
“Others may be investigated in the coming weeks. At the end of the day a political party is the sum of the leaders and the members. If they want to get out of this situation, they must clear the name of their leaders or switch over to leaders unaffected by any kind of negative perception. Only then can the party come back – and even then, it will take a bit of time to win voter trust and rekindle internal confidence.”
This was echoed by Awang Azman of University Malaya’s Institute of Malay Studies, who said the corruption dragnet was ongoing.
“[Former minister] Mahdzir Khalid was questioned by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Umno divisions heads, non-Umno representatives, Umno leaders and former cabinet members are also expected to be investigated and charged,” he said, referring to Umno-linked lawyer Shafee Abdullah, who is representing Najib in court while also facing corruption and tax evasion charges of his own.
He also represents Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, who was charged with money-laundering as part of the probe into the 1Malaysia Development Berhad corruption scandal.
“Many grass-roots members will switch support to the Pakatan Harapan government even though it is not common to do so. We can expect more people to be charged, and more to quit the party.”
Umno has the most members of parliament out of any other opposition party. However, observers believe Umno’s looming disintegration could result in one-coalition federal rule, given the lack of any other viable opposition and Pakatan Harapan’s positive ratings.