A record 2,333 candidates are running in all, but the two main contenders are Najib, who has been in power since 2009, and 92-year-old-Mahathir.
Najib’s right-wing party, Umno, has dominated Malaysian politics since independence in 1957, and Mahathir served as prime minister with the party from 1981 to 2003.
But Mahathir turned against his former protégé following the uncovering of a vast embezzlement scandal known as 1MDB in 2015, and set up his own party, which has joined the main opposition coalition.
“Many things have happened over the past five years, and one of the most significant changes was that Mahathir and the former deputy minister set up their own party and become part of the opposition coalition,” says Latheefa Koya of opposition coalition partner, the People’s Justice Party.
“This is a big boost for the opposition, and definitely gave a chance for the opposition to possibly take over.”
Malaysia’s first-past-the-post electoral system favours ruling party, so the opposition may not win a majority even if it wins the popular vote, but Mahathir’s bid with the opposition has made the result too close to predict.
Bridget Welsh, an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome, has been travelling across the country doing research on political trends and says many voters wanting to bring Mahathir back to power.
“They appreciate that the message that Mahathir is saying, which is to bring the country together, to try and reduce corruption, and to kick out Najib, from the perspective of the anger towards him,” she says.
“The campaign has been dominated by the opposition narrative, even though the incumbent party dominates the resources.”
Corruption scandal harms Najib
Mahathir turned against Najib in 2015, when the standing PM was implicated in the 1MDB corruption scandal, in which some 2.2 billion euros’ worth of state funds were embezzled, including 573 million allegedly transferred to Najib.
Najib’s image has suffered from his alleged implication in the 1MDB embezzlement scandal, but he has also lost support due to unpopular policies.
“1MDB alone is certainly not the reason why people are backing Mahathir or the opposition,” says Latheefa Koya. “The goods and sales tax that came after has pushed up goods prices and inflation, and that has caused a lot of unhappiness among the people, and for the first time this has also affected the core support of Umno.”
Part of Mahathir’s deal with the opposition is that if he becomes prime minister, he will cede power after two years to Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the opposition coalition and who is currently serving a prison sentence on sodomy charges that his supporters say are politically motivated.
Mahathir played a role in having him jailed in the past, but has now promised to get Anwar pardoned if he wins the election.
“Mahathir has said very clearly he will turn over power to Anwar, and at the same time, his presence has served as a catalyst and a pull factor for many people who have traditionally voted for the incumbent government in the past,” says Bridget Welsh, who adds it is still very difficult to gauge the effect all of this will have on voting day.
“What’s making this campaign so significant is the movement across ethnic lines towards the opposition, and think the level of that will determine whether they can actually win power,” she says.
“What’s going to be interesting to watch is the silent majority, the people I’ve met in my moving around during the campaign, to see how they will vote.”
If neither of the main contenders wins an outright majority, it may open up a kingmaker role for conservative Islamic party PAS, which is expected to win a few seats.
Any result that shakes Unmo’s majority could affect the country’s recent close cooperation with China.