Malaysia's incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to win the country's general elections on May 9. But he's expected to face a tough challenge from former premier and mentor Mahathir Mohamad.
Malaysians will go to the polls on May 9 for a general election where scandal-hit incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak's long-governing coalition faces one of its toughest-ever challenges from veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad who governed the country for 22 years.
The country of 32 million people is a melting pot, home to a 67 percent mostly Muslim-Malay majority, around 24 percent ethnic Chinese and seven percent Indian-origin minorities, as well as a kaleidoscope of tribal groups.
The upcoming polls will be the country's 14th general election since independence from Britain in 1957 and all previous races have been won by Prime Minister Najib Razak's governing Barisan Nasional (BN), the National Front coalition.
The Malaysian economy grew 5.9 percent last year, while the ringgit has appreciated by about 15 percent from end-2016, making it one of the best performing currencies in Asia.
Yet the elections are not expected to be a walk in the park for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who has been accused of involvement in a massive financial scandal, with many voters are angry at rising living costs, and a renewed opposition emerging as a real threat.
Here is the five key things you need to know about the upcoming polls.
The governance system
Malaysia adopted a Westminster parliamentary model after it achieved independence from British colonial rule in 1957.
The head of state is the king, who is a sultan or the ruler of a state elected to a five-year term by the other sultans of the country, while the legislative power is given to a federal parliament which is elected in every five years.
The king has extensive powers within the Malaysian constitution. The executive power of the federal parliament is exercised by him on the advice of the Federal Council of Ministers. However, he can't dismiss the head of the federal parliament, the prime minister. He can only dissolve parliament at the request of the premier.
The general election is for all 222 seats of parliament's lower house, known as the Dewan Rakyat. 112 seats are needed to form a parliamentary majority and the government.
Representatives are elected for a five-year term through a simple majority system.
There are about 14 million registered voters. Polls are completed in one day with the result announced the following day.
The Barisan Nasional is the successor of the three-party alliance established in the early years of independence by United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) which are the main representatives of the population.
The coalition has won all the elections it contested and it is considered the world's longest continuing governing coalition party.
One of the strongest Southeast Asian economies
With Indonesia and Singapore, Malaysia is one of the countries that controls the Strait of Malacca which links the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
Thus international trade plays a very significant role in its economy.
It was once based on agriculture and commodity, but over the years the country has managed to diversify its economy with manufacturing and service sectors.
Now, Malaysia has become a leading exporter of electrical appliances, electronic parts and components.
Malaysia has turned out to be one of the most open economies in the world, with a trade to GDP ratio averaging over 140 percent since 2010. It's the third-wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia after Singapore and Brunei.
But despite the country's economic progress, many Malaysians are struggling with the rise in living costs, especially the prices of food.
Scandals in politics
Prime Minister Najib Razak had established an investment firm, called 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), to attract foreign investment and find global partnerships. The company launched developments projects for the country in the areas of tourism, energy and real estate.
But the Malaysian fund 1MDB has been the subject of money-laundering investigations in countries including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore. In civil lawsuits, the US Justice Department has alleged that about $4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB.
In 2016, the US Department of Justice launched civil lawsuits seeking to seize $1.7 billion in assets allegedly bought with money looted from 1MDB, from real estate to artworks and a luxury yacht.
In a speech last year, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions criticised those allegedly involved in the scandal, saying "This is kleptocracy at its worst." However, Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
In March, 2018, the producers of The Wolf of Wall Street agreed to pay $60 million to settle Justice Department claims it financed the movie with money stolen from 1MDB.
The Red Granite Pictures, the company behind the hit Hollywood movie, was co-founded by Riza Aziz, Najib’s stepson.
US prosecutors had claimed three films, other two being Daddy’s Home and Dumb and Dumber To, were financed by Red Granite using money misappropriated from 1MDB.
Another scandal to have affected the governing coalition was at the plantation agency FELDA which was established in 1956 to help rural farmers plant cash crops.
The Felda Investment Corporation (FIC), the investment arm of Felda, was set up in 2013 to focus on hospitality, real estate and oil. It allegedly bought hotels in London at a high price, resulting in millions of dollars in losses.
In 2015, the FIC was probed the Malaysian Anti- Corruption Commission, but the investigation did not unearth any wrongdoing.
Several senior Felda officers were also charged with criminal breach of trust over million-dollar projects across the country.
The general election was slated for August but in April, the government announced it would be held on May 9.
Prior to the announcement, the Malaysian government in March this year redrew electoral boundaries that were last changed in 2003, under the leadership of then-premier Mahathir.
Opposition leaders and civil society groups complained that the gerrymandering measures have tilted the polls in BN’s favour.
The Election Commission insists it is independent and says its electoral-map changes in March did not favour BN.
In early April, Malaysia's parliament passed another law prohibiting “fake news” that sets out fines of up to $123,000 (500,000 ringgit) and a maximum six-year prison sentence for offenders.
Critics say the law appears aimed at shutting down discussion of the multibillion-dollar financial scandal since the law prohibits publishing any news related to the 1MDB scandal unless it is approved by the government.
Former premier faces off with incumbent
Mahathir Mohamad worked as a doctor – he is still widely known by the nickname "Dr M." He entered active politics in the UMNO, Malaysia's largest political party and he became the fourth premier of the country in 1981.
He governed his nation for 22 years, being by far the longest-serving Malaysian leader.
Mahathir was also harshly criticised by the opposition as critical newspapers were shut down and oppositions leader were jailed without trial.
In 1998 Dr M sacked his then-deputy Anwar Ibrahim and had him jailed the following year on charges of sodomy and corruption.
Mahathir now says the decision and action against Anwar was not his own and one that he regrets.
Mahathir stepped down as prime minister in 2003, leaving his office to ex-deputy premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Meanwhile, Anwar completed his sentence in 2004 and quickly emerged as the de facto head of the opposition party.
Abdullah led the coalition government to win a landslide victory in the 2004 election, but he lost the coalition’s crucial two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008.
Despite his retirement, Mahathir continued to wield power in UMNO and played a role in the ouster of Abdullah after the 2008 election.
Mahathir asked Abdullah to resign, blaming him for compromising the country’s sovereignty by scrapping a national project and promoting companies of his family rather than national ones.
He also claimed that Abdullah was a beneficiary in one of the United Nations’s oil-for-food programmes in Iraq.
Najib Razak came to power in 2009 to replace Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
Najib, the eldest son of second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, changed security laws which were harshly criticised for being an instrument for silencing dissent.
He led economic liberalisation in the country, easing foreign investments and cutting government subsidies.
After leading the opposition to improved results in the 2008 and 2013 elections, Anwar was again convicted on sodomy charges in 2014. The jailed opposition leader maintained his innocence, saying all charges against him were politically motivated.
In the wake of the 1MDB corruption allegations, Mahathir became a staunch critic of Najib's government, repeatedly calling for him to resign.
Najib called Mahathir's criticism an attempt by his former mentor to lodge his son Mukhriz Mahathir as the next prime minister.
In 2017, Mahathir joined the Alliance of Hope, also known as Pakatan Harapan, the second-largest coalition in the Malaysian parliament. The coalition announced him as their candidate for the upcoming general election.
If he wins the election, Mahathir has vowed to hand power to Anwar after seeking a royal pardon for his former protege.
Najib, the current prime minister and the head of the UMNO, is widely expected to win the elections, but he is under pressure as support for him eroded in the last two elections due to several scandals on his watch.
Najib selected "Make my country great with BN" as campaign slogan which has similarities with US President Donald Trump's 2016 election motto "Make America great again."
"This election is not about Najib versus the opposition leader. This election is not about BN versus the opposition," he told his supporters at an event in Kuala Lumpur on April 8.
"The key question is which side can provide a better life for you, your family, children and grandchildren, as well as their future."