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Elderly ex-strongman seeks return to power in Malaysia polls

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    Agence France-Presse

Kuala Lumpur | Wed, May 9, 2018 | 01:50 pm
Elderly ex-strongman seeks return to power in Malaysia polls This file photo taken on April 13, 2018 shows former Malaysia's prime minister Mahathir Mohamad listening to questions during an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) at his office in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia's opposition, led by Mahathir, hopes a surge of Muslim support in the multi-ethnic country can carry them to an unlikely victory in the general election on May 9, 2018, as disillusioned members of the country's biggest ethnic group dump the ruling coalition. (AFP/Mohd Rasfan)

At the age of 92, most people are enjoying retirement -- but Malaysia's veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad has returned to the campaign trail as the opposition's candidate against scandal-haunted leader Najib Razak.

In the unlikely event he beats the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for six decades in Wednesday's hard-fought election, Mahathir -- a former doctor who entered politics in 1964 -- will become the world's oldest prime minister.

The return to frontline politics of the man who governed Malaysia with an iron fist for 22 years capped a dramatic rebirth that started when Mahathir fell out with his one-time protégé Najib over allegations huge sums were looted from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB.

His volte-face would have been unthinkable just a few years ago -- by joining the opposition, Mahathir has teamed up with parties that he suppressed while in power and he is taking on the party he once led.

Joining forces with Mahathir has been a gamble for the opposition as he is a divisive figure.

He is remembered fondly by some as a champion of country's Muslim Malay majority and the father of modern Malaysia, credited with policies that transformed a sleepy Southeast Asian backwater into a relatively affluent country.

But he was also criticized for disregarding human rights, undermining the judiciary, jailing political opponents and pushing policies that exacerbated racial divisions in the multi-ethnic country.

He was notorious for his acid-tongued attacks on his foes and what he saw as Western neo-colonialism -- in one outburst, he described Europeans as greedy, warmongering sexual deviants. 

Ace card
Despite his shortcomings, the opposition coalition Pact of Hope hopes his connection to rural Malays will prove to be an ace card in the polls.

Mahathir has succeeded in eroding the key Malay support base of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, with the opposition alliance hoping new converts will add to their natural supporters -- urban voters and minorities, in particular ethnic Chinese who make up about a quarter of the population.

During a vicious election campaign, he has energetically toured the country and spoken at numerous rallies, attacking Najib over his mismanagement of the economy and the 1MDB financial scandal.

"The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib," he said in one broadside.

"I want to fix this mistake."

But BN has a firm grip on power, and critics say a controversial move to redraw electoral boundaries will tilt the poll in their favor.

And while many Malays are sick of the ruling coalition, analysts say that much of the support the government has lost is not going to Mahathir's alliance, but to the influential Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

While the opposition has gained ground, "it is ultimately not likely to be enough to put them over the top," Oh Ei Sun, from Malaysian think-tank the Pacific Research Center, told AFP.

The most remarkable aspect of Mahathir's political comeback has been his reconciliation with former nemesis Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar was Mahathir's heir-apparent until the premier sacked him in 1998 over political differences, and he was subsequently jailed on charges of sodomy and abuse of power. His conviction was widely condemned by rights groups and the international community as politically motivated.

After being released Anwar led the opposition to its best-ever showing in 2013 elections, but was imprisoned again in 2015 under Najib's government.

If he wins the election, Mahathir has vowed to hand power to Anwar once he is released.

Mahathir was spurred out of retirement over allegations huge sums were looted from 1MDB, which Najib set up. Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.

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