Fast forward five years, and Muhyiddin now governs as PM — after a stint in the Pakatan Harapan government — with a one-seat majority that depends on the support of UMNO, the mildly-Islamist PAS party and some members of his Bersatu Party.
Najib’s conviction, in which he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, in the first of several corruption trials he faces over the 1MDB scandal allows Muhyiddin to argue his government has not interfered politically and that justice has been served against the former leader.
But as always in Malaysian politics, there are complicating factors.
First, Najib plans to appeal the High Court ruling and there is a good chance he can win that appeal.
‘This strengthens Muhyiddin’s power, it makes him look like a legitimate leader.’
Ross Tapsell, ANU
As the Australian National University’s Malaysia expert Ross Tapsell puts it, “yes the judgement could be overturned, but this is definitely a win for those who pushed for a trial that was thorough. And the evidence was really quite compelling”.
“This strengthens Muhyiddin’s power, it makes him look like a legitimate leader. This was the result Muhyiddin needed to legitimise his government as one that was not going to put Najib back in power.”
The second complicating factor is that the ruling increases the chances of a snap election being called either later this year or early next year.
The judgment means Najib, currently an MP, can’t run if a poll is called and he can’t be a candidate for the prime ministership with UMNO.
But the former leader retains significant influence in UMNO with a group of MPs loyal to him. Those MPs could, in theory, decide to withdraw support for Muhyiddin’s rule, bring him crashing down and force an election.
“If you were in Najib’s position, how would you resolve this? Winning the next election on your own ,” said one close observer of Malaysian politics.
Muhyiddin’s Bersatu is split between forces loyal to him and MPs loyal to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who lost the top job in February.
The Pakatan Harapan coalition, which came to power in a historic win in May 2018 helmed by Mahathir and now led by Anwar Ibrahim, is still licking its wounds from being booted out of government too.
In other words, there’s a good chance that UMNO – which was booted out just over two years ago and which has maintained a well-oiled political machine – could come back to power in an alliance with PAS (but not Muhyiddin’s Bersatu).
So while the court’s judgement on Tuesday is a win for those trying to unpick the 1MDB financial scandal and recover some of the missing billions, there is a long way to run yet before the final legal judgement on the former prime minister is delivered.
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.