Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister, speaks during a Bloomberg Television interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

The Bitter Feud at the Center of Malaysia's Election

(Bloomberg) -- It’s not just any other election for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak: The vote on Wednesday is personal.

His main challenger, Mahathir Mohamad, led the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for roughly a third of its 61-year run in power, making him Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister. He backed Najib to replace his successor more than a decade ago, but now wants to boot him from office.

The Bitter Feud at the Center of Malaysia's Election

Najib, who first joined Mahathir’s cabinet in 1986, is trying to silence the 92-year-old once and for all. A solid victory would also help Najib, 64, move beyond a corruption scandal involving state-owned investment fund 1MDB, which has dogged him despite his repeated denials of wrongdoing.

“If Mahathir succeeds in bringing down Najib and the very regime he created, he will have proved himself as the most influential politician in Malaysian history,” said Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser to the Pacific Research Centre in Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. “A Najib win, meanwhile, shows that he has truly stepped out of Mahathir’s shadow and legacy, and established himself as a powerful politician in his own right.”

‘Open War’

Mahathir spent much of his 22 years in power grooming Najib to take his place. Yet shortly after Najib finally took office in 2009, Mahathir turned on him -- citing worsening race relations and a tougher business environment. The attacks continued for years, and Mahathir in January offered himself up as a prime minister candidate for the opposition coalition while de-facto leader Anwar Ibrahim sits in jail.

The two fell out over a myriad policy issues, including Najib’s decision to abolish the Internal Security Act, his performance in the 2013 general election and the 1MDB controversy.

On the campaign trail, both leaders have taken personal swipes at each other. At a rally over the weekend, Mahathir called Najib a “thief” and said “he lives in fear even of my photos.” His party had earlier been temporarily banned from campaigning, and authorities had announced they were investigating Mahathir under the country’s new fake news law.

Najib believes Mahathir turned away from him because the political veteran is “obsessive about control, about calling the shots,” he told Bloomberg in a recent interview. “He wanted me to do his bidding.” The final straw, said Najib, was when Mahathir’s son Mukhriz Mahathir lost his bid to become vice-president of UMNO. "That was the turning point and he declared open war against me.”

Mahathir’s press secretary referred questions directly to Mahathir, who couldn’t be contacted on Monday.

Polls show a tight contest between Najib’s Barisan Nasional and Mahathir’s four-party coalition called Pakatan Harapan, which includes Malaysia’s biggest ethnic Chinese party. Anger among non-Malays in 2013 prompted Najib’s coalition to lose the popular vote for the first time in 44 years.

In Peninsular Malaysia, Pakatan Harapan is set to win 43.7 percent of the popular vote compared with 40.3 percent for Barisan Nasional, according to the latest poll by Merdeka Center. Another survey by Institut Darul Ehsan, a think tank run by the opposition-held state of Selangor, showed 57 percent of Malay respondents saying they preferred Mahathir as prime minister over Najib.

Najib and Mahathir will compete for prime time viewers when they deliver their last appeal on the eve of the poll. Najib’s speech will be televised on state-run channels TV2 and Bernama, as well as TV3 and Astro Awani at 10 p.m., while Mahathir is aiming for 10 million viewers by streaming his speech on Facebook at the same time.

Malaysians will cast their votes when polls open at 8 a.m. local time on Wednesday.

‘Malay Tsunami’

Yet the "Mahathir factor" alone may not be enough for Pakatan Harapan to win over Malays. Ibrahim Suffian, the executive director of pollster Merdeka Center, which tracks voter sentiments, told a forum Wednesday that while Barisan Nasional saw declining support levels among Malay voters over the past two weeks, it still maintains nearly a two-to-one advantage.

The Bitter Feud at the Center of Malaysia's Election

Mahathir will need all the support he can get from Malays, which make up about 60 percent of all voters. The ruling coalition has a firm grip on two states in Borneo that account for a quarter of seats in parliament despite holding only about 20 percent of Malaysia’s population, giving it an advantage over the opposition.

In the 2013 election, Najib came to power largely on the back of Malays after the opposition alienated them by campaigning against affirmative action programs that have underpinned the ruling coalition’s support for decades. This time around, the opposition is hoping Mahathir and his Malay-based party can deliver a “Malay tsunami” of votes.

"With Mahathir, Pakatan Harapan has come to a stage where it has never been before," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who recently stepped down as chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs to join Mahathir’s party. "For the first time, it has the support of the Malay population in a very big way."

Najib has dismissed the notion that Malays would abandon him. "I can assure you there will be no Malay tsunami against the government,” he said in April, according to the official Malaysia news agency Bernama. “That strategy, if it works, will only be detrimental to the Chinese community."

Tough Times

Still, it’s a been difficult time for Najib. Besides dealing with questions over 1MDB, he’s faced complaints over rising living costs and brewing discontent with a goods and services tax introduced in 2015. To win over the Malay base, he’s pledged to introduce a law for Shariah-compliant property sales, help ethnic Malay farmers resolve their debts and ensure the same cost of goods for those living in Borneo as in Peninsular Malaysia. 

Mahathir, meanwhile, has vowed to replace the 6 percent goods-and-services tax with levies on company profits and a sales tax -- a move Najib warns would would add 416 billion ringgit ($107 billion) to the nation’s debt. He also wants to impose a two-term limit on the prime minister, something that would’ve checked his own power back in the day.

Two weeks ago, Mahathir shared a video in which he is seen fighting back tears as he explained to a child why he’d come out of retirement to run for office.

"It is because I have to do some work with regards to rebuilding our country," Mahathir said. "Perhaps because of mistakes I myself made in the past and because of the current situation."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.