Scandal-hit Malaysian PM calls elections, expected in May

The flags of Malaysia's ruling party National Front coalition flutter in front of the Prime Minister office in Putrajaya, Malaysia, Friday, April 6, 2018. Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a nationally televised address that he obtained consent from Malaysia's king to dissolve Parliament on Saturday, April 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Malaysia's prime minister says Parliament will be dissolved Saturday, paving the way for general elections expected to be held next month that will put his long-ruling coalition with a revived opposition led by former strongman Mahathir Mohamad.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's scandal-tainted prime minister announced Friday that Parliament will be dissolved to pave the way for general elections, expected to be held next month that will pit his long-ruling coalition with a revived opposition led by former strongman Mahathir Mohamad.

The polls are seen as a test of survival for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is widely expected to win but under pressure to improve the performance of his National Front coalition after support eroded in the last two elections. Mahathir, Asia's longest-serving premier for 22 years before he retired in 2003, turned against his protege two years ago over a corruption scandal and now leads an opposition alliance.

Najib said in a nationally televised address that he obtained consent from Malaysia's king to dissolve Parliament on Saturday, ahead of the expiry of his government's five-year mandate on June 24.

The Election Commission is expected to meet within a week to set a polling date. Voting must be held within two months but widely expected in early May before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

"This election primarily is about Najib. The result will determine his political future. If he worsens his performance, there are leaders who will emerge," said Bridget Welsh, political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. "Given the baggage Najib has going into this election, he will need a big win to stay safe."

Najib has clung on to power despite being embroiled in a corruption scandal that involved hundreds of millions of dollars passing through his bank accounts believed linked to the 1MDB state fund. He denies any wrongdoing and has been cleared by the attorney-general who said the money was a donation from the Saudi royal family.

The National Front lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008 polls. In 2013, it secured its lowest number of parliamentary seats and lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition — its poorest results in more than five decades of uninterrupted rule since independence from Britain in 1957. It currently holds 132 out of 222 parliamentary seats.

Analysts expect Najib, 64, to win a third term due to recent electoral boundary changes, a buoyant economy and strong support for the government from rural ethnic Malays. The opposition also has not managed to gain much ground in eastern Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island, which account for a quarter of parliamentary seats.

It is unclear how much influence Mahathir has among rural Malays, the bedrock of support for Najib's coalition.

On Thursday, Mahathir's nascent political party was dealt a blow after it was ordered to temporarily disband for failing to submit adequate documents for registration requirements.

Mahathir accused Najib of terrorizing his opponents to win the polls. He announced late Friday that the opposition alliance will become a single political force with all candidates contesting under the banner of the People's Justice Party, one of four parties in the alliance, and led by his jailed former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar, who was jailed on a sodomy charge he claimed was politically motivated, is expected to be released in June.

"Should Najib win this election through his tricks and cheating, then we can kiss goodbye to democracy," Mahathir said. "When we are united, we can oust this rogue."

Najib urged Malaysians in his 25-minute speech to give his coalition a strong mandate to ensure a brighter future. He spelt out his government's achievements since he took power in 2009, and appealed to more than 14.8 million voters to act rationally and not with emotions.

"I can boldly say that we have delivered and we will continue to deliver ... I pledge we will develop the entire country from Perlis (state) to Sarawak (state) so that not one area or citizen will be left behind," he said. "If we win again, we pledge to do our best by carrying out a bigger, more inclusive and comprehensive transformation for the people and the country."

Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert, said redrawn electoral boundaries approved by Parliament last week can potentially help Najib win back his supermajority in Parliament. Critics have denounced the new electoral maps as gerrymandering in favor of Najib's coalition.

Parliament also rushed through an anti-fake news bill that would punish offenders with a six-year jail term.

The U.S. and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, which was set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development but which accumulated billions in debt. 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.

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