Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak votes in national elections in his hometown of Pekan.Malaysians have been voting in a cliffhanger election pitting Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition against a resurgent opposition led by 92-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad, but the government is expected to clinch a narrow win.
The long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition faces a far greater challenge than ever before in the Southeast Asian Muslim-majority nation, with public anger over rising prices and a multi-billion-dollar scandal that has dogged Najib since 2015.
Najib, 64, has been buffeted by the scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off.
An election-eve opinion poll suggested that the ruling coalition’s support was slipping and that Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) would land more votes in peninsular Malaysia, home to 80 per cent of the population.
However, under Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, the party or alliance with the majority of seats in the 222-member parliament wins. Most experts believe that is within Najib’s reach.
“I think right now, it looks more favourable to BN … however, the margin that we’re talking about is very small,” said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, a Malaysia scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The opposition has claimed the contest is skewed after the government redrew electoral boundaries and set a mid-week poll date that discouraged millions from voting, but the government and the Election Commission have dismissed the accusations.
The Election Commission said that 69 per cent of the roughly 15 million registered voters had cast their vote as of 0700 GMT on Wednesday, two hours before polls close.
Around 85 per cent voted at the last election in 2013.
Voters complained on social media groups of long queues outside polling centres, which resulted in a waiting time of up to three hours or more for some. Opposition leaders called for voting hours to be extended so that all voters are able to participate.
Most results are expected before midnight but the count may spill into the early hours of Thursday.
Malaysia’s majority ethnic Malay Muslims support BN for affirmative-action policies that give them government contracts, cheap housing and guaranteed university admissions.
Mahathir’s opposition alliance, which counts on urban votes and support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, is hoping that with the long-ruling former leader as its standard bearer, it will draw in Malay voters traditionally loyal to BN.
Mahathir is a polarising figure and many voters are suspicious of him because of his attacks on independent institutions when he was prime minister between 1981 and 2003.
But Najib has another formidable opponent in former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence on a sodomy conviction that has been attacked by human rights groups as politically motivated.
Anwar led the opposition in the 2008 and 2013 polls. In an unlikely reconciliation, he has joined hands with Mahathir, who sacked him as his deputy in 1998.