PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia (AP) — Former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad said a wave of change was evident among rural ethnic Malays and a 30 percent swing from the bloc’s traditional support for the government would be enough to secure the opposition victory in next month’s elections.
Mahathir, who led Malaysia for 22 years before stepping down in 2003, is now leading a four-party opposition coalition to oust scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak in May 9 polls. Najib’s ruling coalition has increasingly depended on the Malay Muslim majority in poor rural areas to retain power after urban middle-class voters flocked to the opposition in the past two elections.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the 92-year-old Mahathir said Malay support for the opposition has made an obvious increase, citing unusually huge turnout at rallies.
Najib, 64, has been dogged by a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state investment fund, which he set up and previously led. The fund accumulated massive debt and the U.S. and other countries are investigating possible cross-border embezzlement and money laundering. Najib himself has denied wrongdoing and has fired critics and muzzled reporting on the scandal.
Mahathir said even though rural Malays do not understand the scale of the 1MDB scandal, they have been hard hit by rising cost of living in large due to the introduction of a 6 percent goods and services tax introduced in 2015 to raise government revenue.
“Now wherever we go, we have a huge number of people coming to us and most of them are Malays. They will come out and they will listen to the talks until the very end. They don’t move, they don’t go away. It shows their interest,” Mahathir said of the crowds at opposition rallies.
“I think there is a wave — whether you call it, a tsunami or not, I don’t know — but there certainly is a change of heart among the rural Malays,” Mahathir said.
More than half of the 222 parliamentary seats at stake are dominated by Malays, who have traditionally been strong government supporters. Malays and other indigenous groups are about two-thirds of Malaysia’s people, with Chinese about a quarter and ethnic Indians and others the rest.
Mahathir said the opposition wouldn’t need every government supporter to change their mind. “We need maybe 30 percent of them to turn around, that would be sufficient for us to win,” he said in the interview.
Yet, Mahathir predicted only a 50/50 chance of victory for the opposition “because of the government tendency to cheat, to threaten people, to use money, to even block the election process.”
New electoral maps approved earlier this year were seen as benefiting Najib’s coalition, and the election date itself was controversial; the midweek vote was seen as depressing turnout among Malaysia’s 14.94 million eligible voters and so was hastily declared a public holiday.
“If it is a fair election, the opposition would win hands down. Such is the dislike for the present government that most people would vote for the opposition but of course, the government has the power and the authority to abuse the system completely,” Mahathir said, citing the new maps and the suspension of his nascent political party just before election was called.
In the event of an opposition victory, Mahathir warned that there could be instability if their win is small.
“With Najib, we can never be very sure that he wouldn’t resort to illegal means to retain his position. So if the majority we obtain is small, he might create a problem,” he said. He noted Najib could declare an emergency in the event of violent political demonstrations.
“The opposition can protest, I suppose. They can take to the streets, but it will mean violence. It will mean a repeat of 1969 on a bigger scale perhaps. That is possible,” he said, referring to bloody racial riots in 1969 that killed more than 200 people.
Mahathir said the 1MDB scandal, which is being investigated by the U.S and several other countries for cross-border embezzlement and money laundering, has blackened Malaysia’s international reputation.
If Najib retains power, Mahathir said the country will be bankrupted due to ballooning national debts that the government cannot pay.
“This country will be totally destroyed,” he said. He said Najib must go and Malaysia must return to the rule of law and restore parliamentary democracy.