Malaysian PM puts party on war footing before polls

News Desk | AFP | Kuala Lumpur

Jakarta, posted: Thu, December 7, 2017 | 12:37 pm

Malay politics:Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) inspects a ceremonial guard of honour during the annual congress of his ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in Kuala Lumpur on December 7, 2017. (AFP/Manan Vatsyayana)

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak put his party on a war footing Thursday as polls loom, vowing to "fight till the end" despite a massive financial scandal that has rocked his government.

The leader told the annual assembly of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) -- which has ruled Muslim-majority Malaysia for six decades at the head of a coalition -- that the country was facing a "crucial election".

"In this battle we fight till the end, in this election we will emerge victorious", he told thousands of cheering delegates wearing the red colours of his party in Kuala Lumpur.

Elections must be called by August at the latest. Najib did not hint at a date in his speech but speculation is swirling that they will be take place early next year.

Najib's chances of winning a third term have been dented by explosive graft allegations. Billions were looted from a sovereign wealth fund that he founded, 1MDB, in complex overseas deals which are being investigated in several countries. 

Both Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

The US Justice Department has led the charge in tackling the alleged pillaging, launching lawsuits through which it is seeking to recover $1.7 billion in assets thought to have been purchased with looted money.

The election race has also been upended by the emergence of elderly former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia for 22 years, as a key figure in the main opposition alliance. 

Mahathir, 92, has come out of retirement to try to oust the government over the 1MDB scandal, teaming up with his former nemesis, jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

In his speech at the UMNO gathering, the most closely watched event in Malaysia's political calendar, Najib, 64, accused Mahathir of having "crossed the line".

"He has the audacity to unite with his political enemies," he said.

He also warned that if the opposition won the election then Muslim Malays, about 60 percent of the country's 32 million people, "will become homeless and despised in their own country".

UMNO has long championed the Malay cause in a country that is home to substantial ethnic and religious minorities, and has enshrined policies that favour them.

Despite the challenges, most observers believe that Najib and the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition will edge another victory in the elections.

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