Kuala Lumpur (AFP) – Vicious mud-slinging, allegations of voter fraud and sabotage have marred a hard-fought campaign for Malaysian elections on Wednesday, in which scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak will take on a heavyweight ex-leader.
Najib’s ruling coalition has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but is facing a tough test at the polls due to a challenge from a former insider — veteran ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad — and the 1MDB financial scandal.
The government is expected to win, partly helped by a healthy economy, however critics say gerrymandering and electoral abuses have also been used to tip the scales in Najib’s favour.
But the surprise return of 92-year-old Mahathir at the head of an alliance filled with parties he crushed during two decades in power has shaken up the race, giving the opposition a charismatic standard-bearer they hope can topple Najib.
“This is the most unpredictable general election in Malaysia for years,” Yang Razali Kassim, a Malaysia expert from the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, told AFP.
“Mahathir’s comeback has been a game-changer. It reversed the political fortunes of the opposition and shook up the entire political landscape”.
The high stakes have prompted a brutal campaign, in which Najib and Mahathir have relentlessly hurled insults at each other as they raced up and down the country for rallies.
Mahathir has run down Najib, his one-time protege, lambasting him over 1MDB, and taking aim at his wife Rosmah Mansor, whose reportedly spendthrift habits have made her unpopular.
Billions of dollars were allegedly looted from 1MDB, set up by Najib, in a sophisticated money-laundering scheme. The leader and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
Najib has hit back, criticising Mahathir’s authoritarian track record when in office.
– ‘Too much corruption’ –
As the battle heated up, authorities have increasingly taken aim at the opposition.
Police have started a probe into Mahathir for allegedly breaking a controversial new law against “fake news” after he claimed that a plane he chartered was sabotaged.
Civil society groups have raised the alarm about what they say are attempts by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition to cheat, including allegations that millions of voters without addresses, as well as dead people, have appeared on the electoral roll.
Critics say one of the clearest attempts to rig the poll came in March when the BN-dominated parliament voted to redraw the electoral map, creating new constituencies dominated by the Muslim Malay majority, who traditionally back the government.
Najib’s party has been accused of running a racially-charged campaign to shore up the support of the Malays, who make up some 60 percent of the population in the multi-ethnic country.
But even many Malay voters have had enough.
“The corruption in BN is too much,” Noorkhallaf Noorazlan, 30, told AFP at an opposition rally in Kuala Lumpur.
“BN needs to take a rest for a while if it wants to reform.”
Najib is under pressure from allies in his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main coalition party, to score an emphatic victory after the government lost the popular vote for the first time at the last election in 2013.
Most analysts still think BN will edge victory in the election, for which about 15 million people are registered to vote and 222 parliamentary seats are being contested.
The challenge from Mahathir — a staunch Malay nationalist — is nevertheless a real threat, and is eating into Najib’s Muslim support base.
But some have been put off from voting at all by the unsavoury choice between the current and ex-premiers. Mahathir was also accused of ruling with an iron fist while in power, by throwing opponents in jail and hollowing out the country’s institutions.
Voters have become increasingly disillusioned over recurring graft scandals and divisive racial politics, and in recent times Najib’s problems have only been compounded by the 1MDB scandal.
While the financial controversy has grabbed international headlines, the main concern for many Malaysians is the rising cost of living and stagnant wages.