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Tuesday Apr 10 2018

Malaysia to vote next month in closely-fought general election

Election commission chairman Mohamad Hashim Abdullah announced Malaysians will go to the polls on May 9, where scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-ruling coalition faces one of its toughest ever challenges. Photo: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysians will vote next month in an election where the scandal-hit government faces one of its toughest ever challenges from veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, officials said Tuesday.

After parliament was dissolved at the weekend, the election commission set the date for one of Prime Minister Najib Razak´s long-ruling coalition's sternest tests during its six decades in power.

"Voting day is on May 9," commission chairman Mohamad Hashim Abdullah told a press conference. There will be an 11-day campaign period before the election.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition´s popularity has been sliding in recent years and its problems have been worsened by a multi billion-dollar scandal surrounding state fund 1MDB, but Najib is still tipped to win due to BN´s firm grip on power.

He is under pressure from allies in his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the main coalition party, to score an emphatic victory after the government lost the popular vote for the first time at the last election in 2013.

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

The 1MDB scandal has only added to Najib´s woes.

Billions of dollars were allegedly looted from the fund in an audacious campaign of fraud and money-laundering which is being investigated in several countries, and it is claimed that large sums ended up the personal bank accounts of Najib.

Najib, who has been prime minister since 2009, and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

Threat from Mahathir 

The 64-year-old has so far weathered the scandal by sacking critics in government and launching a crackdown that has seen opponents arrested on various charges.

His prospects at the election have been helped by a robust domestic economy while he has vowed to protect the country´s Muslim majority, a key vote bank for BN.

As the polls approached, the government has taken steps critics say are desperate efforts to cling on to power -- the BN-dominated parliament voted to redraw constituency boundaries in a manner analysts say favours the ruling coalition.

MPs also voted in favour of a law banning "fake news" that could see offenders jailed for up to six years, which some fear could be used to crack down on dissent.

Victory is however less certain due to the comeback of Mahathir, 92, who has turned on his former protege Najib over the 1MDB scandal.

In a stunning volte-face, he was named the prime ministerial candidate in the opposition coalition Pact of Hope, which is filled with parties he crushed during his 22 years in power.

Mahathir has long championed the Malay cause and the opposition hopes he can win over Muslim voters disillusioned with BN, to bolster their support base of urban voters and ethnic minorities, particularly the Chinese.

The government lost a two-thirds parliamentary majority, needed to amend the constitution, in the 222-seat parliament at the 2008 election and is hoping to win it back.


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