Scandal-hit Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak today announced a cabinet reshuffle, including promoting a trusted ally to manage the economy, in what analysts said could be preparation for a snap election.
Najib, 62, who has survived a massive financial scandal linked to state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), said the shake-up would bolster his administration.
“The reshuffle will boost the government’s ability to pursue development programmes as promised,” he said in a statement.
Analysts and politicians said the reshuffle showed Najib could weather the affair — related to hundreds of millions of dollars of 1MDB money which went missing in complex overseas transactions that have never been fully explained.
Swiss authorities say more than USD 4 billion may have been stolen. Both 1MDB and Najib, who founded the fund, vehemently deny wrongdoing.
Najib was personally plunged into the crisis last year when it was revealed that USD 681 million in transfers were made to his personal bank accounts in 2013. He says the “personal donations” from the Saudi royal family were mostly returned.
The reshuffle saw influential lawmaker Abdul Rahman Dahlan, 50, appointed minister in charge of the Economic Planning Unit.
The economy expanded in the first quarter at its slowest rate since the global financial crisis, as the energy-exporting country grapples with falling oil prices and weak overseas demand.
In total Najib made four new ministerial appointments and picked six deputy ministers.
Johari Abdul Ghani becomes second finance minister, Noh Omar was apppointed urban wellbeing minister and Mah Siew Keong was made plantation industries and commodities minister.
Analysts and lawmakers said the shake-up indicated Najib’s growing confidence he could weather the 1MDB scandal, raising the prospect of a snap election before one is due in 2018.
Lawmaker Mahfuz Omar of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party said the reshuffle demonstrates his strong grip on power.
“Najib is in a powerful position today. I think he is looking at possible snap polls between March and May 2017 on the back of recent stunning by-election victories,” he told AFP.
Mahfuz said the opposition was divided and the financial scandal did not resonate with rural voters, the traditional power base of Najib’s ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent polling firm Merdeka Centre, said the appointment of Abdul Rahman and Johari to important posts showed UMNO was closing ranks around Najib.
“I think Najib is strengthening his power base by putting loyalists in key positions to focus on economic growth,” he told AFP.
The push to oust Najib has been led by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has said the UMNO-led ruling coalition will otherwise lose the next election.
But analysts say Najib is secure within UMNO due to its deep-rooted patronage politics and the great power invested in the prime minister’s office.