KUALA LUMPUR: An EU decision to curb palm oil imports was the last thing Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak needed ahead of a coming election, with rural voters already aggrieved over financial scandals at state owned palm oil agency Felda. Around 10 percent of Malaysia’s 30 million people belong to families who own smallholdings dedicated to harvesting palm oil, and they account for the majority of voters in nearly a quarter of the national assembly’s 222 seats.
Girding for a general election due by August, Najib was given a taste of the discontent rife in the countryside when hundreds of farmers flocked to Kuala Lumpur last month to protest a pending EU move to phase out the use of palm oil in biofuel.
I will not support the government if they don’t resolve this issue,” said Abdul Rahman, a farmer who runs a smallholding in Negeri Sembilan, a state an hour’s drive south of the capital. The failure and inexperience of the government led to the EU’s boycott of our palm oil,” hen told Reuters.
Najib can ill-afford to lose votes from Malays in rural areas that have hitherto been a rock-solid votebank for the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that has led every multi-ethnic coalition since Malaysia emerged from British colonial rule in 1957. Aged 92, and having stood down in 2003 as Malaysia’s longest serving premier, Mahathir Mohamad has come out of retirement to lead the campaign against his one-time protege Najib, having forged an unlikely alliance with jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Malays’ loyalty to UMNO has been tested by the steady flow of stories over the past three years about 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), a state investment firm whose funds, critics say, were used by Najib to boost his campaign for the 2013 election, which he narrowly won while losing the popular vote to an opposition bloc led by Anwar.