Mahathir’s challenge: on the Malaysian general election

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has many things going for him in the May 9 general election, but whether they will suffice in the face of a corruption scandal is an open question. With the economy growing at 6%, helped along by lavish infrastructure spending, Malaysia’s overall outlook could not appear more robust. But Mr. Razak’s opponent and erstwhile mentor, the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, is hoping to exploit the incumbent’s links to a billion-dollar corruption scandal in a state investment fund. The battle lines have been sharply drawn, but there possibly exists an advantage for the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front), led by the United Malays National Organisation, insofar as it has had a long record in office. Also, almost 70% of the population are bumiputras, mainly Malays and other indigenous groups, that have traditionally voted for the UMNO. This group has benefited significantly over the years from Malaysia’s policy of according preferential treatment to it in terms of access to education and government jobs. Parliament’s recent approval of the redrawn electoral constituencies has reinforced allegations of gerrymandering and unequal sizing of electoral districts to benefit the National Front. The conduct of polling on a week day has led to allegations that this has been done to deter a large number of citizens working in neighbouring Singapore from casting their votes — it is believed that a lower turnout will work in favour of Mr. Razak’s party.

The election campaign has seen an estrangement between one-time allies and a coming together of former foes. Mr. Mohamad, who has returned to frontline politics as the incumbent’s principal challenger, was instrumental in the installation of Mr. Razak. He was also once the arch-rival of the man he is standing in for, Anwar Ibrahim, the imprisoned leader of the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope). Uncomfortably for the Prime Minister, news that some $4.5 billion had gone missing from a government fund coincided with the appearance of about $600-odd million in his personal account. Not many have bought his explanation of the sum as a gift from a well-wisher. Mr. Mohamad says the scandal forced him to stage a political comeback and lead a punishing campaign. The veteran politician has sought to channel public anger against the recent imposition of a goods and services tax, portraying the levy as a penalty to recover the losses on account of the missing funds. The National Front is therefore anxious to avert a repeat of its performance in the 2013 polls, when it was returned merely by virtue of the parliamentary seats it won, while losing the popular vote. The party is acutely aware that it needs to regain some lost popularity if it is going to make the best of this election.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 12:52:52 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/mahathirs-challenge/article23795552.ece

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