Najeeb’s Barisan Nasional faced a far greater challenge in this election than ever before
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Najeeb Razzak’s long-ruling coalition clung to a slight lead in vote counting from Wednesday’s election, a cliffhanger contest against a resurgent opposition alliance led by 92-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad.
However, Najeeb’s Barisan Nasional (BN) lost seats in key states that have traditionally been strongholds, raising the prospect that it could be voted out of power.
Five hours after polling stations closed, BN had won 24 of parliament’s 222 seats and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) had 17, according to unofficial results reported by state news agency Bernama.
BN faced a far greater challenge in this election than ever before amid public anger over the cost of living and a multi-billion-dollar scandal that has dogged Najeeb since 2015.
An election-eve opinion poll suggested that support for BN was slipping and Mahathir’s alliance would land the most votes in Peninsular Malaysia, home to 80 per cent of the population in this Southeast Asian nation.
However, under Malaysia’s electoral system, the party or alliance with the majority of parliament seats wins, and going into the poll most experts believed that was within the prime minister’s reach.
The opposition claimed the contest would be skewed by a revision of electoral boundaries and a decision to hold the poll midweek, which it said would discourage millions from voting.
The Election Commission and government dismissed the charges.
The commission said that 69 per cent of the roughly 15 million registered voters had cast their vote by 0700 GMT, two hours before polls closed. Around 85 per cent voted at the last election in 2013.
Long lines at polling centres
Voters complained on social media groups of long queues outside polling centres, which resulted in a waiting time of up to three hours for some. Opposition leaders had called for voting hours to be extended.
Most results are expected before midnight (1600 GMT) but the count may spill into the early hours of Thursday.
Najeeb, casting his vote, said he was confident of victory following what he described as “quite vicious” personal attacks during the campaign.
Leaders from both sides claimed earlier that their communications were being disrupted by non-stop spam calls on their mobile phones as voting progressed.
The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission said in a statement that an initial investigation pointed to anonymous bot (automated programme) attacks from various sources and on various targets irrespective of political parties.
The pre-election survey published by independent pollster Merdeka Center on Tuesday said BN was set to win 100 parliament seats nationwide and the opposition 83. With these numbers, neither camp would have the 112 seats required to rule and the result would hinge on 37 seats it said were too close to call.
At the last election, BN lost the majority vote in its worst performance ever, but pulled in 133 seats.
Unless he improves on that tally, Najeeb could come under pressure within his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party to stand aside ahead of the next election, analysts say.
Najeeb 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, hoped that with the former leader of UMNO as its standard bearer it would draw in Malay voters traditionally loyal to BN.
However, 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.
Najeeb 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 deputy prime minister in 1998.
Najeeb, 64, has been buffeted by the scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off.
US. Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has described the scandal at the fund set up by Najeeb as the worst form of kleptocracy. The US Department of Justice has filed several lawsuits to seize more than $1.7 billion in assets believed to have been stolen from 1MDB.
Najeeb, who was chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and has been cleared of any offence by Malaysia’s attorney general.