Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad shout slogans during an election campaign in Kuala Lumpur, on Sunday. Image Credit: AP

London: On Wednesday, some 15 million Malaysians vote in what likely will become one of the key defining moments in their six-decade political history.

Under fire over a series of corruption, gerrymandering and vote rigging allegations, as well as suppressing opposition figures and parties through tough “fake news” laws, Prime Minister Najeeb Razzak and his ruling coalition are seeking to return to power. But to win a majority of the 222 seats in Malaysia’s lower house — the Dewan Rakyat — Najeeb will have to defeat the legendary Mahathir Mohammad, a 92-year-old political figure who ruled the nation for 22 years and who has come out of retirement to fight his former protégé.

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seats were won by Najeeb’s ruling coalition in 2013, but he lost the popular vote.

And even if Najeeb’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition wins but not in a convincing enough manner, he could face a leadership challenge from within his own ranks.

Mahathir’s antipathy to his former protégé is now so fierce that he has joined forces with an opposition that he intimidated and legally cajoled during his continuous rule from 1981 to 2003. Then, his main protagonist was Anwar Ebrahim, who was jailed for corruption and sodomy, and while still now in jail, Anwar has aligned his wife, Wan Azizah, as Mahathir’s main coalition partner in Wednesday’s election. That vote is more of a referendum on Najeeb’s performance over these past nine years, a period that has seen him embroiled in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, with accusations that he personally profited by as much as $700 million (Dh2.57 billion) funnelled into her personal bank accounts.

$4.5 laundered

He was chair of the advisory board and, according to officials from the Department of Justice in the United States, associates and executives close to him were responsible for $4.5 billion being laundered though companies in Singapore, Switzerland and other countries. The money was used to buy apartments, jewels, gambling in Las Vegas, luxury yachts, a jet, artworks and to fund Hollywood movies including the Wolf of Wall Street and Dumb and Dumber To.

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seats in the Dewan Rakyat, Malaysia’s lower house, will be decided on May 9.

A parliamentary inquiry found many irregularities but had no mandate to prosecute — prompting Mahathir to emerge from retirement and face down Najeeb in Wednesday’s election.

For his part, Najeeb admits there were mistakes but denies any wrongdoing. When it comes to impartiality of Wednesday’s vote, however, he may be found more wanting.

The vote is also likely to reshape the perceptions that have formed during the 61 years of continuous rule for parties in the BN coalition. The Straits Times reports that Najeeb can no longer count on the state of Sabah on the island of Borneo as a “fixed deposit” for his coalition.

The prime minister has called Sabah, along with neighbouring Sarawak, fixed depositions for consistently voting BN, allowing it to keep retain power for decades despite losing votes in peninsula Malaysia.

Electoral map skewed

Shafie Apdal, who leads the opposition push in Sabah, said anger is palpable there given porous border security, poor public infrastructure and a lack of employment opportunities, despite supporting the coalition for more than 50 years.

“It’s shame for Sabahans to be consider a fixed deposit when interest is not given back,” he said. “People are no longer stupid.”

Najeeb’s government has redrawn Malaysia’s electoral map, skewing it away from urban centres or areas with large ethnic Chinese communities. Chinese-Malay voters have been most critical of Najeeb’s government, while larger urban centres have also opposed his rule generally. Now, political analysts estimate that Najeeb’s BN coalition could be returned to a majority with less than 20 per cent of the popular vote in Malaysia’s skewed first-past-the-post electoral system.

Indeed, most worryingly, should that indeed be the case, then Malaysia — and Najeeb — face a period of more prolonged opposition and widespread unrest.

Najeeb’s government too has passed a tough ‘fake news’ law, and would be in a position to use that to quell any reports of unrest — a tactic that would only further inflame opposition to his rule.

Malaysia is a major exporter, its economy driven by oil and gas, palm oil, rubber and electronics.

Part of the South China Sea lies between east and West Malaysia, a maritime region that falls within an area claimed by China, and delineated by a “nine-dash-line” on its maps.

Malaysia — and several other countries in the region — have disputed China’s claim over the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in trade passes annually.