Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Malaysia’s defeated leader Najib Razak said Thursday he accepted the will of the people after the coalition that has led the country for six decades suffered a shock loss to veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, 92.
But he did not make a clear concession, and added that it was up to the nation’s king to decide who would become the next prime minister as no single party had won a majority parliament.
Analysts warned he could be trying to buy time to win defections from other parties over to his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, in what would be a desperate bid to cling to power despite a landslide defeat.
Mahathir came out of retirement to take on his former protege Najib, after the leader became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB that battered Malaysia’s international standing.
The veteran politician’s victory, announced in the early hours after a bitter, racially charged campaign, defied expectations of a win by BN and sparked celebrations on the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur overnight.
The opposition faced an uphill battle due to what critics said were no-holds-barred attempts by Najib to hang on to power.
His government was accused of gerrymandering while activists said he hurled cash and gifts at voters and there were a litany or problems with the electoral roll, including dead people appearing on the list.
In his first public comments since the results, Najib — looking shattered after the shock loss — told a press conference: “I accept the verdict of the people and BN is committed to the principles of democracy.”
However he added that “because no party got a simple majority, the king will decide in a while who will get the confidence of the parliament.”
To claim a simple majority in parliament, a party or coalition would require 112 seats.
The opposition alliance, Pact of Hope, along with a small ally on Borneo island, won 121. BN won just 79 — down from 133 previously.
However the official Election Commission listed the scores for the alliance’s separate component parties when they released the results, not the overall score for the alliance as a whole.
– ‘Unstatesmanlike’ –
James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said Najib’s speech was not a concession and there was speculation that he was trying to persuade MPs from other parties to defect to BN.
“This is dangerous — Malaysians won’t accept a long transition period,” he told AFP.
Bridget Welsh, an analyst from John Cabot University, slammed his speech as “unstatesmanlike”.
“He seems to be in denial. It sends out a message that he’s willing to use tactics such as defections and buying people to try to stay in power.”
Najib’s remarks came as speculation swirled about why Mahathir had not been sworn in as prime minister Thursday, as had been widely expected.
Najib’s defeat could be just the start of his problems — Mahathir has vowed to bring him to justice over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from 1MDB, which the scandal-hit leader set up and oversaw.
Mahathir’s return to the political frontlines saw him reconcile with jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim — his former nemesis.
Despite what critics say were BN’s blatant attempts at cheating, the explosive corruption allegations, coupled with anger at rising living costs, proved too much for Malaysia’s 15 million voters.
Citizens were already sick of racially divisive politics in the multi-ethnic country and graft scandals under years of rule by the coalition.
In Mahathir, the opposition found the perfect person to take on Najib. He is a staunch Malay nationalist who could appeal to the country’s biggest ethnic group, and whose years in power were remembered as a prosperous period in the country’s history.
The initial euphoria at the opposition victory will likely give way to some apprehension.
Mahathir was also accused of being an authoritarian leader, and political opponents were thrown in jail during his time in office.