KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s ousted former premier Najib Razak was “totally shattered” the night he lost the general election and called his jailed rival Anwar Ibrahim twice for advice on what he should do, Anwar said on Thursday (May 17).
Najib was handed a shocking election loss last week which ended the dominance of the Barisan Nasional coalition that has ruled Malaysia for more than six decades.
BN’s defeat in the May 9 polls was attributed to rising anger over corruption and an unlikely alliance struck between 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad and his former rival, Anwar, who got together to oust the scandal-tainted Najib.
Anwar, who was pardoned and released from his five-year jail term for sodomy on Wednesday, said he had received two calls from Najib.
“When he called on the night of the election, I advised him as a friend to concede and move on,” Anwar told Reuters in an interview at his home on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
Anwar said he asked Najib to come out with a statement quickly rather than delay and be perceived as trying to scuttle the process.
Najib, however, said nothing despite Mahathir declaring victory a few hours after the counting of the votes began.
At a news conference the next day, Najib said no party had a simple majority and the constitutional monarch would decide who would form the government.
“He was just very evasive … he refused to concede early,” Anwar said about his discussion on election night.
He said Najib was thinking of what he could do and who he could consult. But Anwar insisted the former-PM did not approach him for a deal in any “serious manner”.
“Even if he had referred to that (a deal) I would have just ignored … I was just listening to him,” Anwar said when asked if Najib had offered him a deal to shift allegiance.
“After the second call he was totally shattered,” he said.
Najib could not immediately be reached for comment.
“In a close contest between two coalitions it is not unusual for a leader of the losing team to try to entice members from the other side,” said Adib Zalkapli, a Kuala Lumpur-based analyst with risk consultancy Vriens & Partners.
Khairy Jamaluddin, the youth and sports minister in Najib’s government, visited Najib at his house on election night and said this week the prime minister had been “calm” and “poised”, but that the people around him were “stunned, shocked and somber”.
Khairy was not available for comment on Thursday. A spokesman for Khairy declined to comment on Anwar’s description of events on election night.
Najib’s coalition secured only 79 of Malaysia’s 222 parliamentary seats while Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) won 50 seats. An alliance between the two could have secured Najib’s return to power.
Last year, Najib visited Anwar at a hospital where he was recovering from a shoulder surgery. The meeting sparked rumors that the two leaders may strike up an agreement to join forces against Mahathir, although this was quickly dismissed by Anwar’s team.
Mahathir, who was sworn in as leader last Thursday, secured a royal pardon for Anwar, and has promised to step aside for his friend-turned-foe-turned-ally to become prime minister.
The relationship between these two giants of Malaysian politics is a saga that has spanned three decades.
Anwar said it had been accepted that he would be the next prime minister after Mahathir steps down, but he wanted to ensure a smooth transition.
“Mahathir has been in power for just a week so it’s not proper to talk about an immediate transition. So let him just continue,” Anwar said. He did not give a time frame for this move.
Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy in the 1990s, but fell out with his mentor during the 1997-99 Asian financial crisis.
He was eventually sacked from the ruling party and founded the Reformasi (Reform) movement, challenging Mahathir’s government. Within weeks, he was arrested and jailed on disputed charges of sodomy and corruption.
After being freed in 2004, Anwar was jailed a second time for sodomy in 2015, when Najib was in power.
Both times, he and his supporters said the charges were politically motivated.
Mahathir was perfect as prime minister right now as the new government goes about dismantling the obsolete and corrupt system put in place by the long-ruling United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led coalition, Anwar said.
UMNO’s race-based politics and patronage system has been slammed by its critics and blamed for the bulging civil service and weak institutions like the judiciary.
“Probably he seems to be the right man…I am a bit more moderate and have a softer image,” Anwar said.
“Because of how I suffered, I always think how any decision would cause sufferings to those affected. So I’m a bit more considerate…and that may not be good in these times when we have to make sure the elements of the old regime do not resurface.”
Anwar and his party has faced a protracted struggle to gain power due to electoral systems and government institutions working in favor of the ruling party.
He said the old regime had been dismantled, but the new government could not assume it would retain the level of support and euphoria seen in the last week.
“From my discussion with the PM (Mahathir) this morning, that seems to be the sentiment … we will have to deliver,” he said.
“I have given that message. We don’t want UMNO 2.0.”