PETALING JAYA: He may be behind bars but Umno is still counting on Datuk Seri Najib Razak to help shore up grassroots support in the coming general election, say political analysts.
Azmi Hassan, a senior fellow at Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research, said Umno has sent a clear message that it will back its former party president “all the way” and not dissociate itself from him.
“It is clear that they want to use Najib as a sympathy pull factor in the election,” he said when contacted yesterday, a day after Umno held a huge gathering to show solidarity with its jailed leader.
Azmi said Umno is seeking to capitalise on Najib’s influence on social media.
“Najib has been very effective on social media and he has a huge following, especially on Facebook.
“Umno will want to ensure that Najib’s social media platforms remain active,” he added.
Azmi said Umno members will be keen to watch how Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, also a party vice-president, will act following the gathering.
“Umno wants to see how he handles the party’s push to get Najib a royal pardon and dissolve Parliament to pave the way for the 15th General Election,” he said.
At the gathering billed as a special briefing held at the World Trade Centre Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, Umno president Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi called on members to use Najib’s Facebook posts as a weapon against the party’s enemies.
Ahmad Zahid also said Umno will organise a nationwide drive among members to petition for a royal pardon for Najib.
Najib stepped down as Umno president on May 12, 2018, after Barisan Nasional’s defeat in the 14th General Election.
The former prime minister is currently serving a 12-year sentence in Kajang Prison following the Federal Court’s decision on Aug 23 to uphold his corruption conviction involving RM42mil of SRC International funds. Also upheld was a RM210mil fine against him.
Najib faces four other criminal charges related to the 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s political science expert Prof Dr Sivamurugan Pandian said the gathering showed that Umno remains united despite Najib’s imprisonment.
“Umno sees Najib as a unifying factor for the party after the general election in 2018 and wants him to continue playing that role although he is in jail.
“He will be the de facto leader as what (Datuk Seri) Anwar Ibrahim was for PKR when he was in prison,” he said.
Prof Sivamurugan said Ahmad Zahid’s calls to Umno members to leverage Najib’s Facebook posts underlined the Pekan MP’s sway over the grassroots.
“They want to show that Najib is still relevant although not physically present with the party,” he added.
On pressure to get Ismail Sabri to call for an early general election, Prof Sivamurugan said it was a sign by Umno that it has shifted into the “final gear” to face the polls.
“Umno wants to show that it is not demoralised or weakened by Najib’s jailing but has been galvanised and emboldened by it,” he said.
International Islamic University Malaysia’s Prof Dr Nik Ahmad Kamal Nik Mahmod said Umno wants the election to be held as soon as possible because emotions are running high following the court’s judgement against Najib.
“When emotions are high, there will be people who will vote for Umno hoping for revenge against those who have caused what they see as an injustice towards Najib,” he said.
Although facing intense pressure from his own party, Prof Nik Ahmad believes that Ismail Sabri still has the support of some sections within Umno and Perikatan Nasional.