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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Malaysia prepares to go to the polls on Wednesday after more twists and turns than a Shakespearean play

The drama started just before nomination day, when a number of candidates were either disqualified or were not allocated a constituency, writes Sholto Byrnes

Flags from different political parties in a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Aaron Favila / AP
Flags from different political parties in a street in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Aaron Favila / AP

It was billed as “the mother of all elections” by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and by the time Malaysians go to the polls on Wednesday to vote, they will certainly have had their share of excitement. It started just before nomination day, when many candidates in both the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) were either disqualified or bitterly disappointed to find they had not been allocated a constituency. One BN hopeful reportedly only decided against running as an independent after some fatherly advice from the Sultan of Johor while a PH politician notorious for having once bitten a policeman found that a subsequent conviction for insulting another policeman had disbarred him.

The former prime minister, 92-year-old Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who nominally heads PH, added to the theatricality by claiming a plane he was due to travel on had been sabotaged and continued to do so even after all the relevant authorities found that it was a routine maintenance issue. This was mild, however, given that he had also ludicrously warned that someone might assassinate him.

In a further twist on Sunday, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi – the premier in between Mr Najib and Dr Mahathir – broke a long silence with a statement clearly backing BN and warning against former enemies allying solely to seize power. As his rule was marred by Dr Mahathir’s constant attempts to tell him what to do, followed by his ultimately successful campaign to oust Mr Badawi for not doing so, he may have had extra reason to come out in support of his successor.

For the electorate, the key factors have been the rising cost of living and the introduction of the unpopular but completely necessary goods and services tax (GST) – not so much the controversy surrounding the state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), from which $3.5 billion was allegedly misappropriated, despite PH’s desire to make it a defining issue. It is too distant for the rural voters who will decide this election and who are, by and large, grateful to the decades of BN rule for the infrastructure they have received and the assistance they have been given. Many rightly conclude that the BN has done a lot for them and Mr Najib’s government in particular has implemented a wide range of programmes to help the so-called “bottom 40”, a reference to the 40 per cent of households on the lowest monthly income.

Ultimately, however, this has been an election like no other as it pits a current BN premier (Mr Najib) against a former one (Dr Mahathir), now contesting under the PH banner. Dr Mahathir’s beef with Mr Najib is essentially the same one he had with Mr Badawi. Mr Najib refused to act as a proxy for the older man and he didn’t do enough, in Dr Mahathir’s eyes, to advance the career of his son Mukhriz to the top tiers of the BN leadership.

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Everything else is just details. Dr Mahathir has seized on a range of issues to try to get rid of Mr Najib, such as opposing reforms that his new allies in the opposition supported and has failed at every turn. His last gasp has been to perform an act of astonishing opportunism by teaming up with a coalition, most of whose leading members were jailed at least once under his time in office (from 1981 to 2003), while many of them had previously called for him to face justice for the excesses and loss of up to RM100 billion ($25.4bn) of public funds that occurred during a period when even Dr Mahathir has admitted he was a “dictator”.

Many Malaysians appear to believe that he has changed and that the tears he has dramatically shed about his wish to correct his past misdeeds – conveniently filmed and blasted out on social media – are not those of a crocodile but a remorseful old man. The wife of Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy Dr Mahathir had jailed in 2000 for sodomy and corruption – and who will supposedly take over from his former boss if PH wins – did not appear to be so convinced at one recent rally. Referring to the “blue eye” symbol that PH campaigns under, she asked supporters to remember the black eye Anwar had received when he was beaten up by Dr Mahathir’s chief of police in 1998. And she – Dr Wan Azizah – and Dr Mahathir are supposed to be the closest of allies.

The truth is that the PH is an alliance of inconvenience, not convenience, because it is very inconvenient to remember all the grievous insults they have hurled at each other over the years, the many lost years in prison to which Dr Mahathir has consigned his new “friends” and the totally contradictory policy positions they have taken.

It is very inconvenient for them too when they repeatedly cry that Malaysia is on the verge of bankruptcy – then are confronted with the glowing reports the BN government receives for its handling of the economy every time the World Bank and the IMF come visiting.

The irony of this election, as one government critic said to me, is that Mr Najib might be most damaged by an issue – the introduction of GST – that all credible international observers agree saved the Malaysian economy from its prior over-dependence on oil and gas revenue.

With a third party, the Islamist PAS, also standing as a third force, this election is currently too close to call. As Mr Badawi put it: “Any government comprising people of differing and opposing political ideologies who only come together for the sole purpose of wresting political power will not and cannot be good for the country.” It is to be hoped Malaysians take his advice seriously. Too much is at stake for them to risk the chaos, incoherence and infighting that a change of government would result in.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia