May 8, 2018
MALAYSIAN PRIME MINISTER Najib Razak has some problems that might seem familiar to some in Washington. He gained office despite losing the popular vote. He has been unable to shake investigations on corruption charges despite firing a top law-enforcement official. His party has splintered over his leadership. Now, on May 9, he must face voters again.
Mr. Najib’s solution? Launch a campaign under the slogan “Make my country great.” Redraw election districts so they are heavily tilted toward his party’s candidates. Adopt a budget-busting policy of handing out cash to likely supporters. Last but not least: Pass a new law banning “fake news,” and use it to silence critical media and to threaten the arrest of the opposition’s leader.
The betting in Kuala Lumpur is that all this will lead to Mr. Najib’s claiming a new mandate after Wednesday’s vote. President Trump, who favored the Malaysian leader with a White House visit last year, is unlikely to raise objections. That’s unfortunate, as Mr. Najib’s corrupt and increasingly authoritarian rule is leading his nation away from the United States.
Among those investigating Mr. Najib’s corruption is the U.S. Justice Department, which has alleged that the prime minister and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a government investment fund. Justice is seeking to seize $1.7 billion in assets connected to the fraud and alleges that $730 million of the funds were deposited in bank accounts controlled by Mr. Najib. The Prime Minister denies wrongdoing but fired the Malaysian Attorney General who was investigating the charges.
Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the coalition that outpolled the ruling party in the 2013 election, meanwhile was jailed on trumped-up sodomy charges. Still very popular, Mr. Anwar will not be released until after the election. But his party has formed an unlikely alliance with Mr. Najib’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, who broke with Mr. Najib following the corruption allegations.
Not content with gerrymandered districts — which, according to one calculation, could allow the ruling party to win a parliamentary majority with as little as 16 percent of the vote — the government has hounded the opposition with dirty tricks. New regulations effectively banned local candidates from using Mr. Mahathir’s name on posters or campaigning with him. His party was suspended for allegedly failing to file paperwork. Authorities are now threatening to prosecute Mr. Mahathir under the fake-news law.
A win by Mr. Najib will do more than reward his ugly tactics. It will likely increase Malaysia’s internal polarization: The Prime Minister has catered to Malay nationalism with xenophobic slogans and attacks on Christians and ethnic Chinese. It will propel Malaysia closer to China, which is happy to tolerate Mr. Najib’s authoritarianism and has taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from a trans-Pacific trade treaty that would have bound the United States closer to Malaysia. A president pursuing U.S. interests would be seeking to isolate Mr. Najib. Instead, if he pulls off his rigged reelection, Mr. Najib can probably count on Mr. Trump’s congratulations.