KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia’s scandal-tainted prime minister announced Friday that Parliament will be dissolved to pave the way for general elections, expected to be held next month.
The polls are seen as a test of survival for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is widely expected to win but under pressure to improve the performance of his long-ruling National Front coalition after support eroded in the last two elections. The key challenge comes from an opposition alliance led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Asia’s longest-serving premier for 22 years before he retired in 2003.
On Thursday, his nascent political party was dealt a blow after it was ordered to temporarily disband for failing to submit adequate documents for registration requirements. Mahathir, who returned to politics two years ago to oust his protege amid anger over a corruption scandal, slammed the move as “tyranny” and accused Najib of cheating to win the elections by terrorizing his opponents.
Najib said in a nationally televised address that he obtained consent from Malaysia’s king to dissolve Parliament on Saturday.
“This election primarily is about Najib. The result will determine his political future. If he worsens his performance, there are leaders who will emerge,” said Bridget Welsh, political science professor at John Cabot University in Rome. “Given the baggage Najib has going into this election, he will need a big win to stay safe.”
Najib has clung on to power despite being embroiled in a corruption scandal that involved hundreds of millions of dollars passing through his bank accounts believed linked to the 1MDB state fund.
His National Front coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008 polls. In 2013, it secured its lowest number of parliamentary seats and lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition – its poorest results in more than five decades of uninterrupted rule since independence from Britain in 1957. It currently holds 132 out of 222 parliamentary seats.
Yet, analysts expect Najib, 64, to win a third term due to recent electoral boundary changes, a buoyant economy and strong support for the government from rural ethnic Malays. The opposition also has not managed to gain much ground in eastern Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo island, which account for a quarter of parliamentary seats.
It is unclear how much influence Mahathir has among rural Malays, the bedrock of support for Najib’s coalition.
The Election Commission is expected to meet within a week to set a polling date and determine when formal campaigning can begin. Voting must be held within two months but is widely expected in early May before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Najib urged Malaysians in his 25-minute speech to give his coalition a strong mandate to ensure a brighter future. He spelt out his government’s achievements since he took power in 2009, and appealed to more than 14.8 million voters to act rationally and not with emotions.
“I can boldly say that we have delivered and we will continue to deliver … I pledge we will develop the entire country from Perlis (state) to Sarawak (state) so that not one area or citizen will be left behind,” he said. “If we win again, we pledge to do our best by carrying out a bigger, more inclusive and comprehensive transformation for the people and the country.”
Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert, said redrawn electoral boundaries approved by Parliament last week can potentially help Najib win back his supermajority in Parliament.
Story: Eileen Ng