Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Malaysia’s veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, 92, said Wednesday he was confident of victory after early unofficial tallies showed his opposition alliance making strong gains in a fierce election battle against scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Official results were extremely slow to trickle out, and showed the ruling coalition and opposition neck and neck. However a series of unofficial tallies showed the opposition alliance, Pakatan Harapan, leading in parliamentary seats and making unprecedented gains in some parts of the country.
Addressing reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Mahathir — who came out of retirement to take on his former protege Najib and the party he himself led for years — said he believed his coalition had achieved the number of parliamentary seats needed for victory.
“There is no way they can catch up,” Mahathir said, referring to the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which has led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.
BN had long looked on course for victory but Mahathir’s decision take on Najib, due to the 1MDB financial scandal, turned the election race on its head.
Mahathir has thrown his lot in with an alliance packed with parties that he crushed while in power, which includes jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim — his former nemesis.
Analysts had widely predicted that Najib’s BN would retain power mainly due to an electoral system critics say has been heavily manipulated.
Early unofficial results however showed the opposition making strong gains. A tally on the website of the pro-government Star newspaper showed the opposition, Pact of Hope, with 63 seats ahead of BN on 41.
The opposition also made strong gains in Sarawak state on Borneo island, a long-time BN stronghold, according to unofficial counts from state news agency Bernama.
Key BN leaders, including the head of the coalition’s ethnic Indian and Chinese parties, also lost their seats, according to unofficial counts.
– ‘Far behind’ –
Mahathir accused the Election Commission of refusing to release the results “because we believe from our unofficial counting that they (BN) are left far behind and the likelihood is that they will not be forming the government”.
He noted that the opposition needed 112 seats out of the 222 in parliament and “it would seem that we have effectively achieved that figure”.
Official results on the Election Commission website showed BN with 27 seats and the People’s Justice Party and the Democratic Action Party — two of the parties in the opposition alliance — on 27 and seven seats respectively.
Mahathir won his seat on the holiday island of Langkawi while Najib won his in the constituency of Pekan, according to unofficial tallies.
Huge numbers of voters earlier flocked to the polls across the country, despite Najib having called the election on a weekday in what critics said was a bid to keep turnout down.
Some voters complained they were forced to queue up outside polling stations for hours, sparking concerns they may not be able cast their ballots.
The race has been fiercely contested, and the opposition alliance has gained ground in recent weeks as Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, chipped away at the government’s key support base, the Muslim Malay majority.
Najib has been under pressure to score an emphatic win after the government lost the popular vote for the first time at the last elections in 2013. Observers say his position as prime minister could be under threat if he does not do well.
The controversy surrounding 1MDB has dogged Najib since the story exploded in 2015. Billions of dollars were allegedly stolen from the fund, which was set up and overseen by Najib. The leader and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
But in rural areas, the rising cost of living, which has hit poor Malays hard, has been the main concern particularly after the introduction of an unpopular sales tax in 2015.
The opposition has faced an uphill battle for victory.
Critics have accused the BN of gerrymandering with a redrawing of electoral boundaries that created constituencies more likely to back them, while activists have alleged numerous irregularities in the electoral roll.
The opposition has been targeted by authorities during the campaign, with police launching a probe into Mahathir for allegedly breaking a controversial new law against “fake news” after he claimed a plane he chartered was sabotaged.