By Lindsay Murdoch
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak appears set to call one of his country’s most bitterly fought elections within days after unleashing what critics claim is the worst case of electoral manipulation in his country’s history.
The move in parliament to redraw the boundaries of scores of wards that critics say will favor the long-ruling Barisan Nasional 13-party coalition prompted fresh protests outside parliament recently.
With the new boundaries ratified Najib, the central figure in a multi-billion dollar corruption investigation into an indebted state fund, is likely to dissolve parliament, triggering the elections before the beginning of the Islamic holy month in mid-May, three months ahead of an August deadline.
Bridget Welsh, an expert on Malaysian politics based in Italy’s John Cabot University, estimates the boundary changes will favor the ruling coalition in one third of the country’s 222 parliamentary seats.
“It is by far the worst case of electoral manipulation in Malaysia’s history and one of the most egregious in the world,” Welsh said.
Najib’s government has also shaken opposition party leaders by proposing legislation to outlaw “fake news” and punish offenders with a 10-year jail sentence, a move described by critics as a further attempt to crackdown on dissent.
The proposed legislation covers all media and extends to foreigners outside Malaysia if Malaysia or its citizens are affected.
Government officials have accused an opposition alliance headed by 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad of using fake news as a key weapon across social media to win votes.
They have warned that news critical of the indebted 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state fund set-up by Najib in 2009 is fake despite that the United States Justice Department says at least US$4.5 billion was stolen from the fund by associates of the prime minister.
Najib,64, denies any wrongdoing, saying more than US$700 million transferred into his personal bank accounts before elections in 2013 were from an unnamed Saudi prince and that most of the money had been returned.
Despite the scandal, the prime minister has strengthened his power in his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) through a system of politics and patronage, as he used state agencies to silence his critics and harass independent media outlets.
Analysts say the prime minister cannot afford to wait until after May to call the elections because former popular opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is scheduled to be released from jail on June 8.
Anwar would inject fresh energy into the opposition’s campaign if he was to be released by the time Malaysia’s 30 million voters go to the polls.
Under Anwar’s leadership opposition parties won the popular vote at the 2013 elections but a gerrymandered system of voting favoring rural Malays prevented the government’s defeat.
Anwar,70, was then jailed on what his supporters described as politically motivated sodomy charges.
He recently formed an alliance with Mahathir, a former bitter political enemy, creating a formidable coalition to challenge Najib at a time of concerns about the growing influence of terror groups such as the so-called Islamic State across south-east Asia.
Mahathir has promised if elected to commence legal proceedings to obtain a royal pardon so that Anwar could immediately play a role in the federal government and subsequently be proposed as a candidate to be prime minister.
It would be a stunning turnaround from years of bitter feuding between the two men that shaped Malaysia’s political landscape for almost two decades.
Mahathir, an authoritarian leader who ruled for 22 years during a “Golden-era” of unprecedented growth, sacked Anwar as his deputy in the 1990s.
He insists he can lead the opposition parties to victory and become the world’s oldest leader if the elections are free and fair but says he expects it to be “terribly dirty.”
He says a swing by just 10 per cent to 20 per cent of UMNO’s rural, ethnic Malay, Muslim voters would be enough for the opposition to achieve a majority, ending the 61-year rule of the party he played a key part in building.
“We have a good chance of winning this time because public opinion is very much for us,” Mahathir said in a recent interview at his office in the administrative capital, Putrajaya.
“The only way Najib can frustrate us is by cheating. If it’s a free and fair election, we will win hands down.”