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Malaysia's future leader hounded by accusations
Barring divine intervention or an extremely well-hidden plan by his detractors, Deputy Prime Minister Mohd Najib Razak will be named Malaysia's sixth prime minister in a matter of days.
Outgoing premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is scheduled to resign on Thursday, paving the way for his deputy to be sworn in at a date that has yet to be announced, but that could happen the very same day.
But the timing for Najib couldn't be worse: he is taking over the leadership of a multi-party government coalition suffering from an all-time low public opinion, and a country already sinking in the fringes of a recession.
And to top it off, Najib's own battles with controversies and scandals have dogged him and overshadowed what should have been a triumphant appointment.
Linking Najib to the Murder of a Mongolian Woman
The main controversy, and possibly the most damaging, is the alleged link between him and the gruesome murder of a Mongolian beauty in 2006.
Altantuya Shaarribuu, then 28, was shot and her body blown up with military-grade explosives. Police found her remains on a remote hill outside the capital Kuala Lumpur.
Both media and public attention to the case reached fever pitch when prominent political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, also a close friend and aide of Najib, was detained for his role in the woman's death.
Abdul Razak was cleared of all charges last year, but allegations of links between Najib and the victim remained, a claim vehemently denied by the deputy premier.
Even after Najib swore his innocence on the Muslim holy book of the Quran in an elaborate ceremony, opposition members and bloggers have been relentless in their accusations.
During a by-election in the northern Penang state last year, thousands of opposition supporters chanted the murder victim's name over and over every time Najib appeared.
Such embarrassing incidents are surely not going to stop once he becomes prime minister.
"For Najib to simply deny that he is not in any way involved with the murder or attribute evil motives on his critics - his current strategy - will not cut it," said prominent political commentator M Bakri Musa.
"Najib has to assure Malaysians that his personal integrity is beyond reproach," Bakri said in his blog.
But the Mongolian murder, coupled with rampant rumours of corruption involving several arms deals while Najib was defence minister, continue to shadow Najib's denials and attempts at projecting a clean image.
According to independent pollster Merdeka Centre, Najib's popularity rating currently stands at 41 per cent, compared to the 46-per-cent rating of his predecessor Abdullah, who was hounded from office.
Najib's problems don't stop at just a low popularity rating. He will be taking over at a time when Malaysia is experiencing increasing unemployment and dwindling economic growth.
Najib as a Leader is Divisive
"These are extremely difficult times. Malaysia needs a leader that can unite this country which is facing hard times," said Zaid Ibrahim, a former minister in Abdullah's cabinet who was fired from the ruling party after he attended an opposition-organized event recently.
"I am hard-pressed to say this, but for these very reasons, I must say that Najib will surely split us, and in doing so, push us further into the pits," Zaid said in a public speech recently.
The opposition warned that Najib's ascension to premiership also signaled a crackdown on dissent and freedom of opinion, citing his hand in a controversial takeover of Perak, one of the opposition-ruled states, earlier this year.
"Severe repressive measures may be the hallmark of Najib's ascendancy to premiership," said Tian Chua, the information chief of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party.
Lim Kit Siang, veteran leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, said that Najib's premiership could unite Malaysians in their distrust of the scandal-hounded leader.
"It is a most significant political phenomenon that many Malaysians, transcending the political divide, are wondering whether there is any way to stop Najib from becoming prime minister until he comes clean," Lim said.