Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, will face a fight for his political life on Wednesday as the nation of 31 million decides at the polls between his scandal-tainted government and an opposition alliance led by Mahathir Mohamad, his one-time mentor and former authoritarian leader.
Mr Najib is widely expected to retain power, thanks to a first-past-the-post system that opponents charge is skewed in favour of his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, and traditional support from rural areas.
However, the momentum throughout the short and bitter election campaign has been with the Pakatan Harapan – a united opposition front of former political enemies – who have launched an offensive over corruption allegations and the rising cost of living, and the prime minister may lose the popular vote.
An unconvincing victory could leave Mr Najib, 64, facing an internal leadership challenge from with his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party.
That would be a huge political upset for a leader who has weathered uproar over an international multi-billion dollar graft scandal that engulfed a state investment fund, 1MDB, that he set up.
The US justice department has been investigating allegations that billions were siphoned from the fund and laundered through foreign bank accounts. But the prime minister has consistently denied any wrongdoing and has been cleared of any offence by Malaysia’s attorney general.
In a statement released on Monday night, Mr Najib underscored his government’s economic achievements, stressing the creation of 2.7 million jobs, an average growth of 5.4 per cent and an increase of over 50 per cent in Gross National Income since he came to power in 2009.
He used the statement to argue that introducing a controversial Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has hit lower income families hard and may yet prove to be his Achilles’ Heel, had been a tough decision but would have long-term rewards.
Mr Najib also lobbed withering personal attacks at his formidable opposition in the lengthy text, labelling Mahathir Mohamad, 92, who ruled the country for 22 years, a “former dictator” who could not be trusted.
The opposition coalition was “a group of people who have spent their lives attacking and demonising each other” and had only come together “to selfishly gain power for themselves,” he wrote.
The four-party opposition argues, however, that joining forces with Dr Mahathir, once regarded as their political nemesis, is a show of strength against a government they believe is running Southeast Asia’s fourth largest economy into the ground.
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Dr Mahathir, a defiant political strongman known as the architect of modern Malaysia, told the Telegraph he had emerged from retirement to save Malaysia from a prime minister for whom “cash is king.”
In one of the biggest U-turns of his 70-year political career, he plans, if he wins, to cede the top job to Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition icon who he sacked as his deputy and who was then jailed in 1999 for graft and sodomy.
At the time of his arrest, Mr Anwar said the case was politically motivated and the US decried it as a “show trial.”
When he was released in 2004 he reentered politics and gained a large following, but he was imprisoned again in 2015 for a second sodomy conviction that his party said was fabricated to crush their rise. Mr Anwar will be freed in June.
His daughter, Nurul Izzah, 37, an incumbent MP and a leading light in the opposition, said in an interview that it had been a “difficult process” to team up with Dr Mahathir but that she had chosen to do so for the good of the country.
“He’s an incorrigible optimist,” said Ms Izzah of her father. But his jailtime was “not something I would wish on anyone,” she added. “Of course it’s taken its toll… sometimes it does get to you.”
When her father was imprisoned, she renounced her dream of becoming an electrical engineer to pursue her family’s political reform agenda to oust a coalition that has now ruled for six decades.
“We started out in 1997 as one of the Southeast Asian tigers, on a par with South Korea and Taiwan and look at us now… we’re doing rather well, we’re not a pariah state, but we’re at the heart of an international kleptocratic scandal,” she alleged.
Fighting alongside Ms Izzah is British-born Maria Chin Abdullah, 62, a human rights activist who hopes to raise the election of female MPs beyond the current 10 per cent. If elected, she said she will push for a “royal commission of inquiry on the electoral system that has failed us.”
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Ms Abdullah said she was prepared for a “tough fight” and has already faced several in the past. In November 2016, as head of Bersih, a coalition of reform-minded campaign groups, she was detained for 11 days under national security laws after organising a peaceful rally against corruption.
Interrogated and held in a permanently lit cell, she was released without charge. She accepts that her campaigning could make her a target again. “There is no telling when they will come after you,” said Ms Abdullah.
Her encounters with families who could not afford three meals a day have spurred her on.
“People are very angry at ground level. If Barisan Nasional comes back with a landslide victory then this will be an election they have totally stolen,” she said.
But it is Malaysia’s 15 million registered voters who will have the last word on Wednesday.
In Kuala Lumpur’s upscale Bangsar district, a sample of constituents largely supported the opposition. “Educated people will vote for the opposition because they are fed up with the government,” said retired banker, Kasinathan, 68. “But the election will not be determined by the urban centres.”
In the working class neighbourhood of Sentul, voters said they had struggled with the 6% GST, but their political loyalties were divided.
“I think its good if the Barison Nasional returns. I get free medical care and a pension,” said Athimulan, 80. “There is nothing much we can do about corruption. We don’t know if the opposition would be better or worse.”