April 6, 2009 / 1:51 PM / 10 years ago

Mahathir rallies Malaysia govt party ahead of vote

SUNGAI PETANI, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia’s influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad on Monday urged voters to rally behind newly-appointed Prime Minister Najib Razak ahead of three simultaneous by-elections.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) arrive for a news conference in Putrajaya, near Kuala Lumpur April 4, 2009. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

The outcome of Tuesday’s polls, which take place just four days after Najib was sworn in as Malaysia’s sixth prime minister, will not change the national balance of power but a win for his National Front coalition will give Najib an early boost.

Najib has pledged to revive the ailing coalition and steer the economy through its first recession in a decade since the Asian financial crisis.

Mahathir’s endorsement is a big boost to Najib’s credibility.

The outspoken former premier had been a fierce critic of Najib’s predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, but on Saturday Mahathir rejoined the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which he had quit last year in protest over Abdullah’s leadership.

Mahathir’s attacks helped force Abdullah into early retirement.

“COME BACK”

Mahathir, 84, was greeted by thousands of cheering supporters in this industrial town in northwestern Malaysia, some bearing banners saying “Mahathir, revered teacher of Malays”, and he told the roaring crowd that it should stand behind Najib.

“I admit many left or stopped supporting UMNO when I left. Now that I am back, and if they think that my struggle is good, they too must come back to UMNO,” Mahathir, dressed in his trademark olive drab bush jacket, told the crowd.

The National Front has ruled Malaysia for 51 years but suffered its worst defeat in national and state elections last year. Months later, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim won a by-election and made a triumphal return to parliament after a 10-year absence.

Victory for Anwar’s alliance in the parliamentary by-election in Perak state and two state assembly races would provide continued momentum for the opposition and put Najib’s new administration on the back foot.

“Collectively, these three contests will illustrate whether Najib and his newly elected team have the support of the Malaysian people,” Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University, wrote in a report published on Monday.

Political analysts say that the National Front is facing an uphill battle in all but the Batang Ai seat in the Borneo state of Sarawak, where the government remains a dominant force.

The battle has been especially bitter in the parliamentary seat in the former tin-mining state of Perak, where the People’s Alliance state government was ousted in a pustch engineered by Najib.

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