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Embattled Malaysian PM Najib seeks reassurance in litmus-test state elections

Malaysia's largest state has been voting in the country's first election since a graft scandal erupted around Prime Minister Najib Razak. The poll is being seen as a gauge of support for his ruling National Front (BN).

More than 1.1 million people in the state of Sarawak on Borneo island were voting on Saturday for 82 lawmakers in the state assembly.

The poll is expected to see a comfortable victory for the ruling National Front (BN) under Prime Minister Najib Razak, despite a graft scandal linked to the premier.

However, the result is being closely monitored for indications as to whether accusations of corruption and mismanagement have damaged Najib's popularity ahead of general elections scheduled for mid-2018.

The BN currently holds 55 seats in the Sarawak state assembly to 15 for the opposition and one independent.

Sarawak is the largest state in Malaysia, but also one of its least-developed, and holds its elections for the state assembly at a different time than the rest of Malaysia.

Ongoing scandal

It is the first election in the country since Najib faced allegations last year that hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned onto his personal bank accounts in 2013 from an indebted state-owned investment fund, 1MDB, that he founded in 2009.

Facing calls to resign,

Najib denied that the money came from 1MDB. The government

backed him in January,

saying that the money was a donation from the Saudi royal family and that the prime minister had returned most of it - an explanation that has failed to satisfy many critics.

The fund

is still being investigated in several countries

for embezzlement, and a Malaysian parliamentary inquiry has called for a police investigation of Najib over huge unexplained payments.

Vote-buying?

In a bid to shore up support in Sarawak, Najib has in recent weeks promised billions in development money for the state, which he has visited more than 50 times since he took power in 2009.

"It is fairly obvious that Najib is looking for a big win in Sarawak to use as political capital and momentum for the next federal polls," said James Chin, the director of the Asia Institute at Australia's University of Tasmania

Chin said that the scandals surrounding Najib will be unlikely to affect the result in Sarawak, with local issues predominating. This view is backed up by a recent independent survey that found most Sarawakians paying little attention to the graft allegations.

Results from the state poll are expected late on Saturday.

The BN has been in power since Malaysia gained independence from Britain in 1957, but has lost support over the last two general elections, turning in its worst-ever result in the 2013 national poll.

tj/rc (AFP, AP)