On the other hand, Ismail Sabri, though seemingly unambitious and uncharismatic, is interested to serve another term as prime minister. Delaying the election date would give time and space for the judiciary to convict one or both of his political rivals, thus eliminating the biggest threat in Ismail Sabri’s party.
To Ismail Sabri, a redoubling of support for Najib and the old guard is the worst-case scenario. Prison was supposed to weaken Najib’s loyalists within UMNO; instead, they are now emboldened with a vengeance against Ismail Sabri. Ahmad Zahid has sent a “loud and clear signal” that the election must be held by the end of 2022, even with the risk of monsoon floods.
The growing momentum of the Free Najib campaign and talks of Najib’s poor health have further cornered Ismail Sabri, forcing him to instruct the Malaysian Health Ministry to give Najib the best medical treatment possible.
Active social media, fired up supporters, and pressures to call an early election – to Ismail Sabri, it is as if Najib had not gone to prison at all.
THE IMPACT OF AN OMNIPRESENT NAJIB ON MALAYSIA’S PSYCHE
On top of that, as a party, UMNO would now be forced to make an important call of whether to embrace or ditch an imprisoned Najib. The division between party leaders who think Najib should reap what he sowed, and party leaders who portray him a victim of malicious assault, will continue to weaken the party.
UMNO risks losing popular support as Malaysians generally perceive Najib’s conviction in the 1MDB trial as the right decision. According to a Merdeka Center poll in 2020, 61 per cent of Malaysians approved of the guilty verdict. Even among UMNO’s stronghold, the majority of Malay voters approved, at 57 per cent, with less than 20 per cent believing the conviction was wrong.
Malaysians are also sensitive to double standards since the pandemic, which revealed gross inequality between the elites and the poor.