KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the dissolution of parliament on Friday, paving the way for a general election showdown with his old mentor and the country’s most seasoned campaigner, Mahathir Mohamad.
Najib is under pressure to deliver an emphatic win for the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, as he struggles to appease Malaysians unhappy with rising costs and a multi-billion dollar scandal at a state fund he founded.
The 64-year-old leader is expected to retain power due to a rift in opposition ranks between Mahathir’s bloc and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.
But analysts predict a tough fight from Mahathir, who transformed Malaysia into an industrial nation from a rural backwater during his iron-fisted 22-year rule until 2003.
The opposition says the election will be unfair.
In recent days, parliament approved plans to redraw electoral boundaries and passed a contentious anti-fake news bill, changes critics say will favour Najib.
The government rejects the accusations.
“If victory is given to BN, we promise to do our best, to carry out a bigger, more inclusive and more comprehensive transformation of the country,” Najib said in an announcement on state television, adding that the dissolution of parliament would be effective from Saturday.
Polling must be held within 60 days of a dissolution. The Election Commission is expected to meet in days to announce a date for the approximately 14 million eligible voters to cast their ballots.
High living costs and corruption are issues that have resonated with voters but overall, Najib’s standing is likely to be bolstered by a robust economy.
“We don’t choose parties, we choose leaders,” said 27-year-old Amir Mukris Bakeri, a travel agent in Kuala Lumpur.
“If the leader can provide for people’s welfare, that’s who we’d pick.”
Growth has been buoyed by a recovery in global crude oil prices and increased trade and infrastructure investment from Malaysia’s largest trading partner, China.
Political apathy, however, is pervasive among young Malaysians and urban voters, many of whom are reluctant to choose between Mahathir and Najib, who are seen as cut from the same cloth.
Mahathir, 92, who was himself criticised for his authoritarian premiership, told a news conference Malaysia’s 14th general election would be “dirty”.
“Should Najib win this election through his tricks and his cheating, then we can kiss goodbye to democracy in the 15th, 16th, 17th elections,” Mahathir said.
If elected, Mahathir would become the world’s oldest prime minister.
Najib resisted demands to step down in mid-2015 following reports of financial mismanagement at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including that $681 million was deposited into his personal bank account.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing in connection with 1MDB, but the scandal created a rift between Najib and Mahathir, who has become the prime minister’s harshest critic.
With the common goal of taking down Najib, Mahathir has joined hands with his former deputy and jailed opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, ending a feud that had shaped the country’s political narrative over two decades.
Najib’s United Malay National Organisation (UMNO) party heads the ruling coalition that has held power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
The coalition lost the popular vote in the last election, in 2013, but Najib held on to power with a smaller majority in parliament.
Malaysia has a first-past-the-post election system, which is based on the number of seats won, not the popular vote.
Even if Najib’s coalition retains power, a weak victory could lead to an internal leadership challenge against him.
His predecessor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, had to step down after the coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the 222-seat parliament for the first time in 2008.
“He wants not only to win, but to win big,” said Yang Razali Kassim, Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The election could be a very close call, he said.
“This will in fact be the most unpredictable general election in Malaysian politics,” he said.
Additional reporting by A.Ananthalakshmi, Emily Chow, Liz Lee and Ebrahim Harris; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel