Malaysia PM pitched in election battle with 92-year-old former mentor | News | DW | 28.04.2018
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Malaysia PM pitched in election battle with 92-year-old former mentor

Prime Minister Najib Razak is at the center of corruption allegations around a state-owned investment firm. He's being challenged by his former political mentor and prime minister for 22 years, Mahathir Mohamad.

Malaysia kicked off an 11-day election campaign on Saturday for a vote to be held on Wednesday, May 9, that pits an embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is ensnared in a corruption probe, against his former mentor and the country's prime minister until 2003, Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has ruled the former British colony since it gained independence in 1957. But growing public discontent and the return of Mahathir Mohamad at the age of 92 threaten Najib's grip on power.

What we know so far

  • Up for grabs are 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state seats
  • Najib finds himself battling a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal at state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
  • The fund is under investigation for money laundering and bribery in at least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland, and Singapore
  • Mahathir was prime minister of Malaysia for 22 years before going into retirement in 2003.
  • Public anger is also growing in response to rising prices, which many blame on a consumption tax imposed by Najib's government in 2015.
  • Critics say the electoral system is tilted in favor of Najib's BN coalition. 
Head shot of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad

What people are saying

"Najib's future will be shaped by the election results, as this is an election about him. He needs to win over 130 seats to be confident of no meaningful challenge within the system," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome.

"There are a few states where the opposition does have a strong presence, so it makes for some uncertainty," said Ibrahim Suffian, who heads the independent polling firm Merdeka Center, indicating that the election could be a tough fight.

"Don't worry. We set the date and the turnout target (85 percent) because we expect they will come out," Election Commission Chairman Mohd Hashim said during a news conference. He was responding to allegations that the government set the election date for a weekday in order to depress voter turnout, which is seen as benefiting Najib.

"Kleptocracy at its worst," is how US Attorney General Jeff Sessions described the vast Malaysian corruption scandal, in which the US Department of Justice alleges $4.5 billion (€3.7 billion) was stolen from 1MDB and laundered through multiple bank accounts in the US and elsewhere.

Why it's important

Despite the presence of multiple political parties in Malaysia, the prime minister's BN coalition has essentially ruled the country since it gained independence in 1957. 

A win for the opposition would strike a blow for multiparty democracy.

Context and background

Najib denies any wrongdoing in connection with the 1MDB corruption scandal.

Mahathir abandoned his support for Najib as details of the corruption scandal came into focus.

Should Mahathir succeed in pulling off an upset, it would mark the first time since independence from Britain in 1957 that the southeast Asian nation was ruled by a party other than the BN-led alliance.

If elected, Mahathir would become the world's oldest prime minister at age 92.

Najib, 64, is under pressure to produce a definitive win after the BN lost the popular vote for the first time in the 2013 election.

What people are saying on social media

Najib predicts a rebound from disappointing results in the last election.

Mahathir tries to balance optimism and reality on the campaign trail.

Some believe that strong voter turnout among young people will tilt the results.

Mahathir is said to have outfoxed Najib.

What happens next

Candidates for the post of prime minister as well as the 222 parliamentary seats and 505 state seats will campaign over the next 11 days.

On May 9 voters will go to the polls and cast their ballots.

bik/rc (Reuters, AP, AFP)

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