Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak on Friday called a long awaited general election that will pit him against opposition chief Mahathir Mohamad, the 92-year-old former strongman premier who hand-picked him for the top political job.
Najib, 64, is expected to win the contest, according to recent nationwide surveys but the opposition is banking on pulling off some surprises.
In a televised statement, Najib said he had received consent from the country’s constitutional king to dissolve parliament on Saturday.
“With my deputy Ahmad Zahid Hamidi and other leaders from the [ruling] Barisan Nasional coalition, I will now travel across the country to explain our manifesto to voters and urge them to give us the support to once again form a strong and stable government,” Najib said in the speech which was beamed on state television and Facebook Live.
The premier touted the country’s recent stellar economic showing – it recorded 5.9 per cent GDP growth in 2017 – as evidence that his economic transformation plans were working, and criticised the opposition for describing the country as a “failed state”.
He added: “We have delivered and we will continue to deliver. I seek your mandate for Barisan Nasional to rule for another five years.”
The exact polling date will be announced in the coming days. The expectation among political watchers is that the vote will be held in late April or early May, just before the start of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
The election is being held just two months before the expiry of the 222-seat legislature’s current five-year term, and amid a deluge of complaints from the opposition that Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition has rigged the outcome in its favour even before campaigning begins.
Fuelling these accusations is the passage over the last fortnight of new legislation that introduces sweeping pro-ruling coalition changes to the country’s constituency boundaries, and a controversial new law to fight so-called “fake news”.
On Thursday, the country’s Registry of Societies temporarily dissolved Mahathir’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) – a constituent of the Pakatan Harapan opposition bloc – over discrepancies in its paperwork.
Mahathir late on Thursday said the party will continue to function as normal, and accused the premier of “cheating in order to paralyse his opponents” before the election.
The country of 32 million people has 15 million registered voters across its 13 states, including the semi-autonomous provinces of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island.
Apart from the 222 parliamentary seats, a total of 505 seats in the various states assemblies will be up for grabs.
Barisan Nasional holds 132 parliamentary seats against Pakatan Harapan’s 72.
The coming polls mark Najib’s toughest political battle yet following three years of political infighting among the country’s ethnic Malay ruling elites.
He has been dogged by a multibillion corruption scandal at the state fund 1MDB. Najib was identified in reports to have funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars from the fund to his personal accounts.
The premier has denied these allegations, and maintains that the funds in his accounts were donations to Barisan Nasional from Saudi monarchs.
Najib also sacked his detractors including his number two Muhyiddin Yassin and the then attorney general Abdul Ghani Patail and four other ministers.
Mahathir meanwhile dramatically quit the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) he dominated as prime minister for 22 years in protest against Najib.
He then paired up with Muhyiddin, the sacked deputy prime minister, to form PPBM, a Malay-only party set up to rival Umno – the linchpin of the coalition that has governed the country since 1957.
Mahathir then formally joined the opposition bloc that he vilified during his tenure as premier. He also reconciled with the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, another protégé-turned-nemesis.
Barisan Nasional has intimated it will fight off Pakatan Harapan by making its track record on the economy the centrepiece of campaigning.
The ruling coalition’s top lieutenants have fanned out across the country with one key message: Najib, who holds the concurrent portfolio of finance minister, is the best steward of the national purse strings.
The country recorded stellar headline figures last year – posting GDP growth of 5.9 per cent and the Malaysian ringgit – routed following the 1MDB scandal – was 2017’s second-best performing Asian currency.
And amid discontent over soaring cost of living and a recently imposed sales tax, Najib has since 2012 disbursed hundreds of millions of dollars in cash hand outs.
The country has also attracted a slew of infrastructure investments from China, following a step-up in bilateral ties in recent years.
In comments on Tuesday, Najib fought back against strident criticism from the opposition about the Chinese investment.
Mahathir has said China’s rising influence on the economy could weaken Malaysia’s sovereignty.
But this Najib countered: “Just imagine what would happen if we jeopardised our relations with China. If China refuses to buy our palm oil, furniture and timber, who else is going to buy them? If China does not buy, the opposition leaders will lose nothing, the people will stand to lose.
“The opposition is in chaos. As such, choose a government that champions the plight of the people, that helps the people.”