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Corruption scandal overshadows Malaysia's snap election

A man passes a live telecast of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addressing the nation on the dissolution of Parliament at an electronics shop in Port Klang, Malaysia April 6, 2018.
A man passes a live telecast of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak addressing the nation on the dissolution of Parliament at an electronics shop in Port Klang, Malaysia April 6, 2018. REUTERS/Lai Seng Sin TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved the country's parliament, paving the way for elections that will test his grip on power amid allegations of widespread corruption and discontent over rising living costs.


The Malaysian government is facing one of its greatest tests.

The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, which has been in power since Malaysia won independence from Britain in 1957, has seen its support drop in recent years.

The fall has been accelerated by the 1MDB scandal, a fraud and money-laundering probe involving members of the government and being investigated in a number of countries.

"I think the major issue facing the electorate this time will be the rising cost of living," says Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist. "That is often linked, rightly or wrongly in the minds of voters, with the consumption tax that was introduced three years ago."

The 1MDB scandal is also a major problem for the ruling parties, he says. "I don't think the government has been able to provide convincing explanation for what happened, people feel cheated. So I think this will be some of the major issues. But whether this will be enough to bring about change in the government it's still very unclear."

The population is unhappy that nothing has been done to apprehend the culprits of the scandal, Muzzafar says. So far the ruling party, Umno, has managed to weather the accusations, sacking critics inside government and cracking down on opponents.

Mahathir's return

The ruling coalition's grip seems all the more unsteady in the light of the comeback of Mahathir Mohamad, the country's former prime minister who was 22 years in power, but turned on Najib over the 1MDB scandal.

The opposition is putting most of their chips on Mahathir, who has long championed the Malay population in this multiracial country, hoping he can win over Muslim voters disillusioned with the government.

Historically, the Muslim Malay population tends to vote for the ruling party, while the minority non-Muslim population votes for the opposition.

However, Mahathir's party has suffered a major blow on Thursday when authorities ordered it to temporarily disband because of a failure to submit correct paperwork, something that, according to Muzaffar, has never happened in the history of the country.

Even if the former prime minister does manage to woo voters, political analyst Ibrahim Suffian isn't sure the opposition is strong enough to win.

"What we see happen in the last five years is that since the introduction of the sales tax, reduction of government subsidies for low income households, food items and energy items, there has been a voter backlash against the ruling party, and that makes it a challenging election for them," says Suffian.

And the opposition parties have failed to build a united front.

"The question is that, given that the opposition is fragmented, not working together in a coalition or a pact, specifically between the Islamic party [Pas] and the rest of the opposition parties, one wonders whether or not the opposition can muster enough support in order to win more seats or win a plurality of seats in the upcoming election," Suffian argues. "I think the ruling party still has a lot of advantages they can bring to bear and gain the final victory at the end."

Governmental tactics

Elizabeth Wong, a member of the opposition's People's Justice Party and cabinet minister for the state of Selangor, concedes this will be a difficult fight, claming that the government is trying to tilt the polls in its favour.

A controversial redrawing of the electoral map is believed to favour Najib.

"I think the ruling government is extremely nervous, otherwise they would have called the elections much earlier and they have done a number of things, which is seen to benefit them," explains Wong. "But I think, at the end of the day, people are up to their necks with everyday problems, especially to do with finance, with daily economic hardship and this time they will come out to vote against the ruling party."

Malaysia's national election commission is to decide soon on the date of the election, which is expected to take place in May.

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