KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) – Malaysian elections that could determine scandal-plagued Prime Minister Najib Razak’s political survival were set for May 9, an unusual workday date with a shorter campaign period than during the last polls.
Past Malaysian elections were mostly on weekends, though workday votes are not unprecedented. National polls in 1995 and 1999 under former strongman Mahathir Mohamad, the opposition leader who is Najib’s strongest challenger, were on a Monday.
The Election Commission also Tuesday set an 11-day campaigning period, shorter than the 15 days in 2013 polls. It said 14.94 million voters will cast their ballot, an increase of 1.7 million new voters.
Analysts say lower turnout could disadvantage the opposition led by Mahathir, Asia’s longest-serving leader for 22 years before he retired in 2003.
“There is a chance for a lower turnout, especially for those who have to travel to vote. A reduced turnout is likely to favor the incumbent,” said Rashaad Ali, research analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Mahathir, who leads a four-party opposition alliance, has said a high voter turnout was needed for an opposition victory. In 2013, when the opposition won the popular vote for the first time, a record 85 percent of voters cast their ballot.
Najib, 64, is seeking a third term in office and under pressure to improve his National Front coalition’s performance after support eroded in the last two elections. He has been dogged by a massive corruption scandal involving the 1MDB state fund, which is under investigation in the U.S. and other countries for allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering.
A strong victory is pivotal for Najib ahead of year-end party elections in his United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which is the linchpin of the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independent from Britain in 1957.
“I would consider this election the ultimate test of survival for Najib. If Najib fails to deliver a strong result, voices of dissent within UMNO will surely grow louder making his position as leader untenable. If he does well in the election, it would be the biggest consolidation of his position,” analyst Rashaad said.
Najib faces an unprecedented challenge from his former mentor Mahathir, who returned to politics two years ago amid anger over the scandal involving 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Najib, but which accumulated billions in debt.
Opposition lawmakers said the 1MDB scandal had turned the country into a global kleptocracy and warned that re-electing the ruling coalition will destroy Malaysia. The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib and it is working to seize $1.7 billion allegedly taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing and strengthened his grip on power by firing critics and muzzling the media. Just days before he called elections, parliament also approved redrawn electoral boundaries slammed as skewed in favor of the National Front and a ban on fake news that critics say is aimed at shutting discussions on the 1MDB scandal.
On Saturday, Najib unveiled a lavish election manifesto with cash benefits targeting rural Malays angered by rising cost of living. His campaign slogan “Make my country great with BN” – the Malay acronym for the National Front – has similarities with President Donald Trump’s 2016 election motto “Make America great again.”
The National Front lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 and in 2013, it lost the popular vote to the opposition for the first time, its worst ever electoral showing.