Malaysian election pits former leader against elite protege


PV International Desk : Voters have a stark choice in Malaysia’s election on Wednesday: resurrect the country’s 92-year-old former authoritarian leader or give a third term to Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose alleged role in the multibillion-dollar ransacking of a state investment fund has battered Malaysia’s standing abroad.

Najib’s ruling party, in control for six decades, is likely to hold on to power due to an electoral system that gives more weight to rural voters, analysts say, but at the price of reduced legitimacy.

The contest pits Najib, a political blue blood, against his former political mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister for 22 years until 2003 and credited with modernizing Malaysia.

Angered by the corruption scandal that engulfed the state investment fund set up and overseen by Najib, Mahathir defected from the ruling coalition’s dominant United Malays National Organization party and joined forces with opposition parties that had regarded him as their chief nemesis. U.S. investigators say $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB, the investment fund, by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including $700 million that landed in Najib’s bank account. He denies any wrongdoing.

The graft and money laundering scandal, under investigation by several countries, including Malaysia’s ally the U.S., as well as the 2015 imposition of a goods and services tax that hit poor Malays hardest, have been foremost in voters’ minds. Yet the perennial race card in Malaysian politics — that an opposition victory would pave the way for ethnic minority Chinese to dominate the country politically — is still a powerful subterranean force.

“The more fundamental primal underpinnings of Malaysian politics remain,” said Ibrahim Suffian, co-founder of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. “The overt campaign talks about issues of the economy and cost of living, but underneath that there is a continuing discussion about who is best suited to maintain the interests of the majority Malay Muslim population.”