KUALA LUMPUR • Convicted of corruption less than a month ago and sentenced to 12 years in jail, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak was back campaigning for a party candidate over the weekend in a by-election for a state assembly seat.
Out on bail, he is waiting for his appeal date to be set, while standing accused in two other trials and waiting for two more to begin – mostly linked to the looting of billions of dollars from defunct sovereign fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
Despite that, his party – the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – and its ethnic Chinese and Indian party allies invited Najib to be their star campaigner for a by-election this month in Slim district, about 90 minutes north of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Najib was voted out of office in 2018 amid outrage over the 1MDB scandal. But since then, he has undergone a public relations makeover to shed his image as a blue-blooded member of the elite and broaden his appeal to ordinary Malays. With more than four million followers on Facebook and Twitter, he has become more popular on social media than any other Malaysian politician.
Having always denied guilt, Najib said the court verdict had not affected his voter appeal, or that of his party.
“On the contrary, some people say I have much more sympathy from the people,” he told Reuters during a campaign stop in Perak.
His fortunes appeared to improve in February as his rivals’ coalition government imploded and Umno returned to power in an alliance led by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
On the stump in rural Perak, Najib was very much in his comfort zone, though the numbers attending election rallies were restricted by coronavirus social distancing rules.
As he arrived at a breakfast gathering, loudspeakers blasted out a thumping rap to deliver his catchphrase.
Using biker slang, the message goes: “What’s to be ashamed of, my boss?” Around a hundred supporters present cheered.
Later in the day, Najib visited homes in communities fringed by oil palm estates and posed for selfies over lunch at a restaurant.
Mr Shahrum Abdul Rakeb, a diner, told Reuters that Najib had his unwavering support.
“We will see how the situation turns out, but either way, I still support him. I think the people have begun to realise, we know who is better for us.”
Mr Vangdasalam Govindasamy, a 45-year-old voter, said: “We don’t know for sure whether he is really guilty or not. As far as I am concerned, when he was in power, he did things for us. He helped us.”
Some critics said Najib’s camp has employed cyber troopers to amplify its social media presence and paid people to show up at rallies.
Najib, denying such tactics, said: “The momentum that we created… is coming from the people.”
Though he retains his seat in Parliament, where Tan Sri Muhyiddin’s alliance holds a wafer-thin majority, Najib cannot contest an election so long as the guilty verdict hangs over him.
He did not elaborate on his plans, but said his priority was to be the “voice of the people”.
Few people would bet against him making a comeback if his appeal succeeds or if he is granted a royal pardon.