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Malaysian pro-democracy leader Maria Chin Abdullah launches election bid in boost for opposition against PM Najib Razak

Speculation has been rife that Malaysian PM Najib Razak will call elections within weeks as his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition inches closer to the end of its five-year term

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Friday, 30 March, 2018, 1:02pm

The leader of Malaysia’s biggest pro-democracy group said on Tuesday she will stand for parliament in a general election under the banner of an opposition alliance aiming to throw Prime Minister Najib Razak out of office.

Maria Chin Abdullah is chairwoman of the activist group Bersih, which means “clean” in the Malay language, and which has for years led anti-government protests against Najib who has been dogged by a scandal over huge losses at a state fund.

She is standing as an independent but under the banner of the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan.

Her support for the opposition in a general election that must be held by August is likely to bolster the opposition alliance, led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, especially among urban voters frustrated with Najib’s rule.

“The system has not worked for us. We have to try new strategies and entering parliament is just one of them,” Chin, 62, said.

Najib faces an unprecedented challenge from his former mentor, Mahathir, 92, who turned on the prime minister over his handling of a multibillion-dollar scandal involving the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund.

After news broke in 2015 of hundreds of millions of dollars allegedly misappropriated from the fund, Najib moved quickly to quell dissent, sacking critics from his cabinet and ruling party and clamping down on a damaging internal probe.

Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

Despite the scandal, Najib’s Barisan Nasional ruling coalition, is widely expected to win the election, thanks to rural support, a rebounding economy, and the redrawing of electoral boundaries that critics say favour the government.

Chin was arrested ahead of a protest march in 2016 but was freed after 10 days in police detention.

China did not mention the 1MDB scandal in her news conference.

She promised to fight for election reform, gender equality and the environment, if elected to the 222-seat parliament.

“My sole purpose is to get my agenda to parliament,” she said.

She said she was stepping down as leader of the activist group, which brands itself as non-partisan, to focus on her bid for parliament.

Critics said her decision to enter politics exposed her political bias in favour of the opposition. But Chin said Bersih has never been neutral.

“We have always taken sides against violators of democracy,” she said.

She is the latest high-profile civil society figure in Malaysia to join the electoral bandwagon after Wan Saiful Wan Jan, a former think-tank head who joined Mahathir’s Bersatu party last week.

Some analysts said they expect more civil society activists to stand under the opposition banner.

“They’re joining because there’s a real chance now for Barisan Nasional to be defeated,” said University of Tasmania’s Asia Institute director James Chin, who is not related to the activist.

Other analysts however have said it would not be easy to unseat the ruling party due to unfavourable electoral boundary changes and divisions within the opposition coalition.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse