- Of 1,000 Malaysian respondents surveyed by FT Confidential Research in the fourth quarter, 71.5 per cent held a negative view of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak’s recent performance in office.
- We expect Mr Najib to lead his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to victory in the next general election, but his low approval rating raises the risk of a leadership challenge within his United Malays National Organisation (Umno). We believe Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, deputy prime minister and Umno acting deputy president, is the frontrunner to replace Mr Najib in the event of such a contest.
In our fourth-quarter survey, only 5.6 per cent of Malaysian respondents said they either “highly approve” or “approve” of Mr Najib’s performance over the last quarter. This is a fall of 1.4 percentage points quarter on quarter. Most respondents — 71.5 per cent — expressed some degree of disapproval of Mr Najib’s leadership (see chart).
Rising risk of leadership challenge
We are convinced that Mr Najib will guide BN to victory in the next general election, with the opposition too disorganised to mount an effective challenge. The election could be held as early as the third quarter of this year, but will definitely be before an Umno party poll slated for mid-2018. Umno is the largest party in the BN coalition.
However, the expected victory does not guarantee political continuity in Malaysia. We think Mr Najib’s low approval rating raises the risk of a leadership challenge after the general election, especially if he fails to improve on BN’s 2013 election seat count.
The risk will be greatest in mid-2018, when Umno must hold a triennial party poll. This vote was due to take place in late 2016, but amid the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) corruption scandal, Umno agreed in June 2015 to postpone it by 18 months — the maximum delay allowed under the party constitution.
As we wrote at the time, the Umno poll delay helped Mr Najib stay in power. It gave Mr Najib the time to resolve the crisis by quelling internal rebellion, ending domestic anti-corruption investigations into his accounts and sorting out 1MDB’s financial woes.
The postponement also eliminated the only realistic window Muhyiddin Yassin, the then-deputy PM and Umno deputy president, had in which to mount a credible challenge for the party presidency. Mr Muhyiddin was eventually forced out of the cabinet and the party. Come 2018, Umno will need to organise its poll, whether Mr Najib likes it or not. The election is for all posts in Umno, including the Supreme Council, which includes the president, deputy, three vice presidents and 25 other council members.
If BN ends up winning the general election unconvincingly, we think Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is the likeliest person to stand against Mr Najib in the party contest. Mr Zahid is deputy prime minister and acting Umno deputy president.
Redistricting exercise could yet save Mr Najib
Mr Najib could head off a leadership challenge by delivering a more convincing Umno and BN victory. This is where an ongoing redistricting exercise being carried out by the Election Commission could help.
The commission is ostensibly an independent body, but we believe the redrawing of seat boundaries will benefit BN. We expect the process to be completed by the second quarter of this year.
Gerrymandering has long been a feature of Malaysia’s electoral landscape. In the 2013 general election, the BN coalition won 60 per cent of the parliamentary seats despite winning only 47 per cent of the popular vote. The last redistricting was completed in 2003, just before the 2004 general election when BN, under former prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, gained 90 per cent of the seats with 64 per cent of the popular vote. We think the divergence between seat count and popular vote will be exacerbated by the redistricting exercise.
FT Confidential Research is an independent research service from the Financial Times, providing in-depth analysis of and statistical insight into China and Southeast Asia. Our team of researchers in these key markets combine findings from our proprietary surveys with on-the-ground research to provide predictive analysis for investors.