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Snap Insight: Ahmad Zahid walking free from corruption charges not good optics for Malaysia PM Anwar

KUALA LUMPUR: The move by a Malaysian court to drop corruption charges against Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is set to raise some near-term political discomfort for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government, which has made combatting graft a top priority.

The decision by the High Court on Monday (Sep 4) to partially drop the charges against Mr Ahmad Zahid, who is the president of the long-established United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is also likely to complicate efforts by the beleaguered party to plug the slippage of support among ordinary Malaysians, particularly the politically dominant ethnic Malay community.

Mr Ahmad Zahid and UMNO played a central role in getting Mr Anwar elected as prime minister after Malaysia’s inconclusive general election in November last year, and the move by the Attorney General’s Chambers to seek the so-called discharge not amounting to an acquittal will surely raise heckles against the Pakatan Harapan (PH) ruling coalition over the alleged interference in high-profile politically charged corruption cases.

To be sure, the decision by the High Court does not preclude the Attorney General from filing fresh charges against Mr Ahmad Zahid at a later stage, but questions abound over the request by the prosecution to discontinue proceedings at such an advanced stage of the trial. 

Mr Ahmad Zahid was originally charged in September 2018 on 47 charges of corruption and money laundering. In January last year, the High Court ruled that the prosecution had succeeded in establishing a case against the politician.

Mr Ahmad Zahid’s trial over the alleged abuse of power at a charitable foundation called Yayasan Akalbudi, which is wholly owned by him, had hogged media headlines in recent months with the testimonies from witnesses called by the prosecution and the defence.

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MALAYSIANS JADED BY MESSY POLITICS

The development on Monday is sure to invite closer scrutiny on other politically sensitive corruption trials by ordinary Malaysians already jaded about the country’s messy politics.

The ongoing trials include cases against other senior UMNO leaders and the wife of former prime minister and now-jailed Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor, together with several of Mr Anwar’s political opponents led by former premier Muhyiddin Yassin. 

Mr Anwar has made it no secret in his private sessions with close aides that he is grateful to Mr Ahmad Zahid for throwing UMNO’s support behind the PH coalition that helped him secure the premiership, but his associates insist that there was no interference.

“It is fair to say that the optics from all of this is not good for Anwar and the government. We need to ride this out,” said a senior businessman, who has been a part of the premier’s inner circle for the past three decades.This week’s political twist also carries major ramifications for UMNO, which was booted out of power in the 2018 general election after more than six decades of ruling Malaysia. The spectacular defeat came on the back of widespread public anger over the fiasco at state-owned 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and corruption allegations against Najib and Mr Ahmad Zahid.

Najib surrendered the UMNO presidency to Mr Ahmad Zahid and was sentenced to 12 years in jail after his conviction on corruption charges linked to the 1MDB affair just over a year ago.

Since then, Mr Ahmad Zahid has consolidated power over UMNO by sacking rivals within the party, contesting that his corruption charges were politically motivated by Mr Muhyiddin and Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who temporarily served as prime minister for the second time after UMNO was kicked out of power.

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