The Guardian view on Najib's rise and fall: a victory for the rule of law | Editorial

Politicians should not be able to use state coffers as a personal piggy bank

Malaysia’s Najib Razak has become the country’s most prominent leader to be convicted in a criminal court. The former prime minister was found guilty of an abuse of power, money laundering and a breach of trust. He faces 12 years in jail. The judgment represents a fillip for a Muslim-majority democracy in a region where authoritarianism is on the rise. Politicians should not be able to use state coffers as a personal piggy bank and no one is above the law.

Najib is a kleptocrat in the eyes of the court. But is he in the public’s mind? Given the anger over graft, it would seem so. The judge found £7.5m in Najib’s bank accounts came from a state-owned Malaysian investment fund known as 1MDB, which was founded and controlled by him during his time in power. The verdict means that Najib is disqualified from being a candidate in any election. To run again he would need to win his appeal. He will remain free while he challenges the verdict.

Najib faces four more trials related to the theft of billions of dollars from 1MDB. The US department of justice said that the fund’s cash was used to purchase luxury apartments in Manhattan, paintings by Monet and even financed a major Hollywood movie. The DoJ says $680m (£525m) ended up in the prime minister’s bank accounts. This in a country where 40% live on less than £2 a day.

But Najib has stayed active in politics, working behind the scenes. His party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), played a decisive role in instigating Machiavellian levels of betrayal to bring down the government that had come to power by defeating him. Umno currently props up the shaky Perikatan Nasional government, made up of Malay-centric parties and rural fundamentalists. Regaining high office, his opponents say, is the only way Najib can save himself from jail.

This would be an awful turn of events. Najib’s Umno was autocratic as well as corrupt, and it let the economy splutter. The party lost office in 2018 after six decades in power. There was a genuine hope that the new multiracial Pakatan Harapan government would be a force for change. But apart from press freedoms and an anti-corruption drive, the hopes of the new government were largely unfulfilled.

Malaysia is now being hit by two shocks – the spread of coronavirus and the sharp decline in the value of its oil exports. Unemployment is at record levels. Yet the government can barely muster a parliamentary majority and lacks the strength to pass any emergency laws. A new government is needed: either with a fresh election or a different parliamentary coalition. Restoring political stability probably depends on what Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, does next.

Mr Anwar’s multiracial, secular party leads the parliamentary opposition. He has long been denied the top job. He ceded power to his old mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, with whom he had reunited after a falling out in 1998 saw Mr Anwar put behind bars on trumped-up charges. Mr Anwar focuses on the plight of the poor. He blew the whistle on 1MDB in 2011. This saw him jailed again under Najib in another travesty of justice. Without someone like Mr Anwar at the helm, there may be dark days ahead not just for Malaysia’s opposition but the country itself.

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