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Malaysia’s scandal-hit PM faces ex-mentor, 92, in close election

Malaysians went to the polls Wednesday in one of the country’s closest-ever elections, which pits scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak against his one-time mentor, 92-year-old former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Najib is seeking to retain power at the head of a regime that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, but veteran ex-leader Mahathir’s shock comeback has upended the election race.

Angered by a massive financial scandal that has tarnished Malaysia’s international image, Mahathir has teamed up with an alliance of parties that opposed him when he was in power, and which includes jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim — his former nemesis.

Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is seen as likely to retain power mainly due to an electoral system critics say has been heavily manipulated to favour the government, but analysts predict they will lose the popular vote for the second consecutive election.

But the race has been fiercely contested, and the opposition alliance has gained ground in recent weeks as Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, chipped away at the government’s key support base, the Muslim Malay majority.

Polls closed at 5:00 pm (0900 GMT). There was no immediate word on the final turnout, with the Election Commission putting the figure at 69 percent of about 15 million voters at 3:00 pm.

Analysts expect turnout to come in lower than at the last election in 2013, when it was about 85 percent, which could be a blow for the opposition who say they need a high figure for victory. Final results are expected late Wednesday or early Thursday.

Some opposition lawmakers and voters complained on social media of hours-long queues to cast ballots, although it was not clear how widespread the problem was.

Before polls closed, Mahathir said he was worried voters may not get the chance to cast their ballots.

“I have received reports from voting centres that many voters are gathered outside polling stations and that the process was moving quite slowly,” he said.

– Uphill battle –

Earlier Mahathir cast his ballot alongside his wife in the northern city of Alor Setar, and said he was confident of victory.

Najib, a political blue blood and son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, voted in his constituency of Pekan.

“The most important thing is for people to decide on the destiny of this nation, and it must be based on facts,” the 64-year-old told reporters.

Najib is under pressure to score an emphatic win after the government lost the popular vote for the first time at the last elections in 2013. Observers say his position as prime minister could be under threat if he does not do well.

The controversy surrounding state fund 1MDB has dogged Najib since the story exploded in 2015. Billions of dollars were allegedly stolen from the fund, which was set up and overseen by Najib. The leader and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

But in rural areas, the rising cost of living, which has hit poor Malays hard, has been the main concern particularly after the introduction of an unpopular sales tax in 2015.

Allegations of cheating are common at Malaysian elections, and as polls opened both opposition and BN leaders complained their phones had been jammed by a flood of spam calls to stop them from communicating with their teams.

The internet regulator blamed the attacks on “bots” (automated programmes) and said it would investigate.

While the opposition has gained ground, it faces an uphill battle to defeat a coalition that has never lost an election.

Critics have accused the BN of gerrymandering with a redrawing of electoral boundaries that created constituencies more likely to back them, while activists have alleged numerous irregularities in the electoral roll.

The opposition has been targeted by authorities during the campaign, with police launching a probe into Mahathir for allegedly breaking a controversial new law against “fake news” after he claimed a plane he chartered was sabotaged.

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