Malaysia polls to decide fates of PM Najib, ex-strongman Mahathir

Embattled PM Najib Razak's grip on power will face a challenge in the upcoming general election, when the ruling party confronts an opposition alliance led by former strongman Mahathir Mohamad — Najib's erstwhile mentor.

Next month, Malaysians will get their say in whether their scandal-tainted prime minister, Najib Razak, should remain in office or give way to his 92-year-old former mentor, ex-PM Mahathir Mohammad. Voters in the Southeast Asian nation will cast their ballots on May 9 in a general election viewed as the sternest-ever political test faced by Najib and his party.   

The incumbent prime minister is under pressure to deliver a decisive victory for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957 but has seen support drop in recent years. The coalition lost its two-third parliamentary majority after the 2008 elections and then in 2013 lost the popular vote for the first time in its history to the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan.

To woo voters and deflect public anger at increased costs of living, Najib recently unveiled a lavish 220-page election manifesto with cash benefits for low-income workers and rural ethnic Malays, his key voting bloc, and a pledge to create millions of jobs.

If elected,92-year-old Mahathir would become the world's oldest prime minister

Najib's campaign slogan "Make my country great with BN" appears to have been an imitation of Donald Trump's 2016 election motto, "Make America Great Again."

"This election is not about Najib versus the opposition leader. This election is not about BN versus the opposition," he was quoted by the AP news agency as saying at the launch of his election manifesto on Saturday. "The key question is which side can provide a better life for you, your family, children and grandchildren, as well as their future."

"This war, we must win! Never let it go to the opposition!" Najib said.

Read more: Malaysia elections - undecided? spoil your vote

A tough contest

The 64-year-old Najib is seeking a third term in office at a time when his popularity has taken a beating following the massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state fund, which is being probed by the United States and other countries on suspicions of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.

Read more: Malaysia state fund 1MBD denies sending money to PM Najib

Billions of dollars were reportedly looted from the fund, and it is claimed that large sums ended up in the personal bank accounts of Najib. The prime minister and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

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Najib also faces a resurgent opposition, led by Mahathir, who was Asia's longest-serving leader before he retired after 22 years in 2003. Mahathir, dubbed the country's "Father of Modernization," is credited with transforming Malaysia into an industrial nation from a rural backwater during his iron-fisted rule.

But his critics call him a "dictator," pointing to his hard stance on dissidents and the press, and curbing of the powers of the judiciary while he was prime minister. They also blame him for consolidating power in the hands of the executive during his tenure.

The former strongman returned to politics two years ago as anger grew over the 1MDB controversy, and he now leads a four-party opposition alliance to unseat Najib. But his nascent political party was ordered by authorities last week to temporarily disband over registration requirements, prompting Mahathir to accuse Najib of "terrorizing" his opponents to win the polls.

Read more: Artist Fahmi Reza: 'Malaysian politics is a circus full of clowns'

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

The doctor is in - again

A medical doctor by training, Mahathir led Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 and is dubbed the country's "father of modernization." A shrewd politician, he won five consecutive general elections, while deflecting challenges to his leadership of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a core component party of the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional (BN).

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Extraordinary elections ahead

The Malaysian elections must be held by August this year, with analysts predicting they will happen by June. It promises an unprecedented spectacle as it will pit incumbent Najib Razak against Mahathir, his former mentor, who had favored him and helped install him as PM in 2009. Mahathir quit UMNO in 2016 following the 1MDB scandal, saying it had become "Najib's party."

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Rallying for 'clean' elections

Called a "dictator" by critics for his hard stance on dissidents and the press, and for curbing the power of the judiciary while he was PM, he attended a Bersih ("Clean") rally in 2016 organized by several NGOs seeking reforms of the current electoral system to ensure free, clean and fair elections. Critics also blame him for consolidating power in the hands of the executive during his tenure.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

An astounding about-turn

Mahathir set up a new party in 2016, which then joined forces with Pakatan Harapan, a loose coalition of oppostion parties. Ironically, he had locked away some members of these parties before, most significantly, his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. The coalition has stated that if it wins the 2018 elections, Mahathir would be PM and Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (pictured here), his deputy.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

The eyebrow-raising reconciliation

Anwar (L), once Mahathir's heir apparent-turned-archrival, was sacked from his post as deputy PM, and later charged and found guilty of graft and sodomy. Yet, in their shared zeal to unseat Najib, they've now struck a deal, with Mahathir offering to secure a royal pardon for Anwar (currently serving a second sentence for sodomy under Najib's administration), easing the way for Anwar to become PM.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Between a rock and a hard place

Not all Malaysians are on board with this pact though. Some civil society members and opposition lawmakers blame Mahathir for engineering the very system he now opposes. This disquiet has spurred a new movement. #UndiRosak (or #SpoiltVote) that urges voters to either boycott the polls or cast spoilt ballots. But others argue that this will merely split opposition votes and empower BN further.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Future in peril?

Current PM Najib Razak's administration has been mired in scandals, most notably involving the state fund 1MDB, which is being probed for money laundering in several countries. However, a survey in December predicted that he is likely to remain in power given a fractious opposition and his government's efforts to redraw electoral boundaries that critics claim highly favor a BN win.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Loss of popular vote

The BN, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957, lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority after the 2013 elections. It also then lost the popular vote for the first time in its history to Pakatan Harapan.

Malaysia sees the return of Mahathir Mohamad

Courting the millennials

Meanwhile, the nonagenarian has taken to social media in a bid to court the country's younger electorate. But a poll conducted in August 2017 found that "seven out of 10 voters below the age of 30 in Peninsular Malaysia do not care about politics; two-thirds believe that politicians were not just untrustworthy, but also the 'main problem in Malaysia.'"

Advantage for Najib?

Observers say Najib has already shaped the battlefield in his favor by inducing the opposition to split and carrying out measures such as redistricting electoral boundaries, which will aid his party's prospects. "Najib and the ruling party hold the upper hand," Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Center, told DW.

In late March, the Malaysian parliament agreed to redraw parliamentary and state boundaries in a manner that apparently favors Najib's party, which has more support in rural areas than in big cities. The 30 percent of Malaysia's population that lives in rural areas controls more than half the seats in parliament.

Analysts argue that the 1MDB corruption saga hasn't really undercut Najib's support among rural Malays, a key vote bank for his party. The leader has also vowed to protect and secure the privileges of the Muslim-Malay majority, which makes up close to 60 percent of the multiracial nation's population of roughly 32 million people, which also includes Chinese and Indian minorities.

"The 1MDB issue has hurt Najib's image, but the scandal first broke about three years ago and many voters have become acclimatized by the topic," Suffian said, adding that "politics in multiethnic Malaysia is not only about policies and conduct of leadership, but also about how political parties are perceived to be able to convince voters that they are able to protect the voters' interests along communal and regional lines."

Hence, he stressed, the impact of 1MDB will be balanced with other topics that voters deem to be of equal if not more importance. 

A robust economy also boosts the electoral prospects of the incumbent prime minister, who has overseen solid growth buoyed by a recovery in global crude oil prices and increased trade and infrastructure investment from the nation's largest trading partner, China. Malaysia's gross domestic product grew 5.9 percent in 2017 ― its best performance in three years.

Hindering free speech

The government also recently passed a law against "fake news," which could be used to muzzle free speech and the expression of views critical of Najib and his administration. The legislation defines fake news as "any news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas."

It foresees jail terms of up to 10 years and fines of up to 500,000 ringgit ($128,000/€103,600) for people who create and publish such reports. The law would also apply to foreigners operating outside Malaysia's borders as long as citizens of the country were affected by the reports. Critics say the law was passed with an eye on the elections and to silence criticism of the government.

Given the choice between Najib and Mahathir, some Malaysians view themselves as caught between a rock and a hard place. "Topics over how government plans to alleviate rising costs of living and stagnant wages will be discussed, but, in keeping with the traditionalist nature of Malaysian society, a large part of the politicking will revolve around the personalities of Mahathir and Najib, particularly over their merits and track record in addressing the needs of the Malay society," Suffian said.

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Global Ideas | 14.09.2017

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