KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has been accused of involvement in a massive financial scandal, many voters are angry at rising living costs, and a renewed opposition is a real threat.
But he is still tipped to be handed another term in office at elections Wednesday.
Here are five reasons why he is likely to win and extend his coalition’s six-decade hold on power:
Scandal? What scandal?
While the controversy surrounding sovereign wealth fund 1MDB grabbed international headlines, the scandal has faded in many Malaysians’ minds, and alone is unlikely to prompt them to eject Najib from office.
Billions of dollars were allegedly looted from the fund, which was set up by Najib, and used to buy everything from high-end US real estate to a luxury yacht, while huge sums mysteriously ended up in the leader’s personal bank accounts.
Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
Many Malaysians are unhappy at having a leader linked to corruption, and the ruling coalition’s share of the popular vote could be dented.
But the scandal peaked a few years ago and is no longer at the forefront of people’s minds, with voters more concerned about other things.
“Rising living costs, and particularly the rising cost of food, seems to be the top issue,” Charles Santiago, a lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Action Party, told AFP.
Skewing the system
Allegations of electoral fraud and skewing the system to favour the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition are nothing new at Malaysian elections, but analysts warn Najib is going further than any other leader in his bid to retain power.
A redrawing of the electoral map in March created constituencies packed with voters from the Muslim Malay majority, who typically support the government, while civil society groups have complained of irregularities in voting lists, including the appearance of dead people’s names.
BN insists the elections will be fair.
Playing the race card
Najib has been shoring up BN’s key Malay support base, which makes up some 60 percent of the country’s 32 million inhabitants, by doling out cash handouts aimed at civil servants and those on low incomes — often from the Muslim majority.
The leader has also warned that a victory for the opposition, which has tried to present a more multi-racial front than BN, would be a “nightmare” for Malays that could threaten their privileged place in society.
Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert from John Cabot University, told AFP that Najib had run a “very aggressive campaign to feed off the insecurities of the Malay community”.
Many Malays will continue to back BN as they have benefited from a decades-old affirmative action programme that gives them perks, such as priority for government jobs.
The four-party opposition alliance, Pact of Hope, got a huge boost when veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad was picked to run as their prime ministerial candidate, and they hope the Malay nationalist will help swing Muslim voters away from BN.
But it may be too little, too late for the long-troubled bloc.
A previous opposition grouping fell apart in 2015 amid a dispute between the DAP and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) over Muslim law. PAS has gone its own way and is fielding candidates separately at the poll, which could split the opposition vote.
The opposition are also missing their long-time leader Anwar Ibrahim, one of the country’s most charismatic politicians, who is in jail after being found guilty of sodomy in a case his supporters say was politically-motivated.
Najib’s efforts to maintain power have been helped by a rebounding economy, which posted its best annual growth rate for three years in 2017 at 5.9 percent.
The economy benefited from Najib’s cash handouts to low-income earners, which gave consumer spending a lift, as well an export boom. A recent rise in oil prices will also help, as Malaysia is the only net exporter of oil among Asia’s major economies.
Featured photo shows supporters walking past a poster of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak during a campaign event ahead of the upcoming 14th general election in Pekan, Pahang on May 8, 2018. AFP PHOTO/Mohd Rasfan