Malaysia's scandal-hit PM faces ex-mentor, 92, in election

Kuala Lumpur (AFP) –


Malaysians went to the polls Wednesday in one of the country's closest ever elections which pits scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak against his one-time mentor, a 92-year-old former authoritarian leader.

Najib is seeking to retain power at the head of a regime that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, but veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad's shock comeback has upended the election race.

Angered by a scandal at state fund 1MDB that battered Malaysia's international standing, Mahathir has teamed up with an alliance of parties that fiercely opposed him when he was in power, and which includes jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim -- his former nemesis.

Najib's ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is expected to triumph due to what critics claim is manipulation of the electoral system.

It also benefits from the benchmark for victory, which requires only that it wins a simple majority of MPs in parliament, rather than the popular vote.

It is however expected to be a tight race and the opposition alliance has gained ground in recent weeks as Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, has chipped away at the government's key support base, the Muslim Malay majority.

Polls opened at 8:00 am (0000 GMT), with people starting to stream to voting centres across the country, and were due to close at 5:00 pm (0900 GMT). Results are expected to be known late Wednesday.

Lim Kok Tong, a 43-year-old voter in Kuala Lumpur, told AFP he was "hoping for change".

"When governments realise that they can be replaced, they will be attentive to their citizens," said the voter from the country's ethnic Chinese minority, who typically support the opposition.

In a tweet as polls opened, Najib urged voters to "make the best choice for the future of this country".

- Under pressure -

The leader is under pressure to score an emphatic win after the government lost the popular vote for the first time at the last elections in 2013.

Voters in the multi-ethnic country have become increasingly disillusioned by divisive racial politics, the rising cost of living and graft scandals.

The 1MDB controversy has only added to Najib's woes. Billions of dollars were allegedly stolen from the fund, which was set up and overseen by Najib, in a sophisticated scheme of fraud and money-laundering. The leader and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

Mahathir has said Najib has "destroyed" the country and the economy has been ruined.

Najib has countered Mahathir's attacks by warning that the rights of the Malays -- who benefit from a decades-old affirmative action programme -- will be threatened if the opposition wins.

He has also labelled Mahathir a "dictator", and the former leader was considered authoritarian during his time in office. During his rule, Mahathir's political opponents were thrown in jail and he was accused of undermining the country's democratic institutions.

Critics have raised the alarm about attempts to manipulate the system to tilt the poll in BN's favour, pointing to a redrawing of electoral boundaries which created constituencies packed with Malay voters.

The opposition was increasingly targeted as the campaign heated up, with police launching a probe into Mahathir for allegedly breaking a controversial new law against "fake news" after he claimed a plane he chartered was sabotaged.

Despite the challenges, most analysts think Najib will edge victory in the election, for which some 15 million voters are registered to vote and 222 parliamentary seats are being contested.