Malaysia's new opposition party isn't expected to succeed in ousting PM Najib Razak

A multi-billion corruption scandal and international criticism have failed to topple Prime Minister Najib Razak. Fresh political opposition isn't expected to work either, analysts say.

Malaysia saw the birth of its newest political party, the Parti Pribumi Bersatu, last week. With former premier Mahathir Mohamed as founding chairman and former deputy PM Muhyiddin Yassin as president, it's widely believed the party has one clear goal.

"It's explicitly clear that the party [commonly referred to as Bersatu] was created to topple the PM," said Oh Ei Sun, Najib's former political secretary from 2009-2011 and a current senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Malaysia's former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin shows a document after submitting an application for a new political party on August 9, 2016.
MOHD RASFAN | AFP | Getty Images

Indeed, it's no secret that Mahathir—once a mentor to Najib—and Muhyiddin are the PM's biggest critics.

Last June, the PM was accused of receiving $681 million in his personal bank account from state wealth investment fund 1MDB, sparking calls for his resignation, led by Mahathir at home and anti-graft watchdogs abroad. Meanwhile, Yassin was sacked last year for criticizing Najib's handling of the scandal.

Early this year, Mahathir rounded up Najib's political enemies to spearhead the 'Save Malaysia' movement-- a campaign to oust Najib and form a national consensus on institutional reforms and a new political system. In March, the movement got more than 1 million people to affirm their concerns over Najib's leadership by signing a document called the Citizen's Declaration and Bersatu's launch is seen as an extension of these efforts.

But with general elections expected in 2018, pundits are sceptical of Bersatu's ability to dislodge Najib's ruling party—the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)—and its coalition government, the Barisan Nasional (BN).

UMNO has helmed Malaysia since independence in 1957 and provides the PM with support of its central leadership and regional chiefs, widely seen as the key to Najib's political survival. In February, Mahathir quit UMNO, saying it was "supporting corruption" under Najib's reign.

Given UMNO's deep roots and historical dominance, Bersatu may not be a formidable enough opponent, suggested Trinh Nguyen, Asia Pacific economist at investment bank Natixis. "It is doubtful that this new political vehicle is going to do much given Mahathir's age [91] and also waning political clout...it's unlikely that Mahathir can galvanize support to topple Najib."

Moreover, Malaysia's fractured political landscape is another obstacle.

Malaysia reaction to US 1MDB lawsuit is somber: Think tank
Malaysia reaction to US 1MDB lawsuit is somber: Think tank

"There are many challenges facing Bersatu, especially with the opposition disunited," said Norshahril Saat, fellow at the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute, a research group specializing in Southeast Asian studies.

There are already a number of opposition parties to BN, including the People's Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and Parti Amanah Negara (Amanah). But infighting between these groups has only solidified the BN's grip over the country, Saat noted.

Certain members of PAS left to form Amanah in 2015, uniting with the PKR and DAP to form an opposition alliance called Pakatan Harapan. However, the alliance has already lost two by-elections to BN this year. Meanwhile, other smaller opposition vehicles have united to form another pact called Saksama.

Bersatu has said that it will ally with Pakatan Harapan but if that materializes, it's expected to only muddle the opposition landscape further, noted Oh.

Still, it will certainly make the 2018 elections interesting, said Saat. "Mahathir's hope is that sentiment against the BN government has not changed since 2013, when more than half of Malaysians voted for the opposition."

With a lack of viable alternatives to Najib and slowing economic growth, Malaysia overall is in a state of "strategic survival," said Nguyen.

Amid a messy political atmosphere, there is an air of stagnation around the country's medium-term outlook and a lack of debate about how to take Malaysia to the next level of development, she explained.

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