COMMENT Najib Razak’s cabinet reshuffle was an expected step in the repertoire of many measures that the prime minister has used to stay in office.
In this manoeuvre, he has removed the immediate leadership threats among the Umno hierarchy, closed down the two avenues of negotiation involving the 1MDB scandal, and purportedly strengthened the ‘strongman’ dimensions of his leadership.
Many argue this Mahathirian move has secured Najib’s position by neutralising challengers. I disagree. In fact, Najib’s measures of late reveal weakness - not strength - and are likely to deepen his leadership crisis.
With the reshuffle, Najib has forged new alliances among the various factions in Umno. In the Umno party elections of 2013, Najib made a strategic alliance with Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s appointees and the former premier’s son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin to secure dominance over internal party opposition seen from the Mahathir Mohamad camp.
Najib managed to position considerable loyalists as division chiefs in the party contests, but did not fully secure control over the Supreme Council or have a majority of division chief loyalists on his own, relying heavily on allies to shore up his position.
Najib post-2013 approach to manage Umno was to fuel patronage to division chiefs, and to rely on a broad consensus cabinet that would include diverse representations from factions within the party. Among those included in cabinet were prominent Umno leaders not seen to be directly tied to Najib, current and former deputy prime ministers, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and Muhyiddin Yassin respectively. Najib chose to keep his potential challengers close.
As the crisis with Najib’s leadership of Umno evolved, with its roots in the 2013 party polls, Najib took steps ranging from meetings to promised contracts to stay in control. He followed in Mahathir’s footsteps using the executive position to his advantage. His apparent aim was to neutralise threats to his power, to secure his position aka Mahathir-style as a long-term leader.
While he did not act decisively to put in his own loyalists, he was simultaneously unsettling the balance among Umno warlords and creating dissatisfaction among Umno elites, particularly with Mahathir. The dissatisfaction was fueled by displacement of actors in the Umno political economy, concerns that Najib sold out the party for himself and, most importantly, perceptions he was undermining the electoral position of Umno...