KUALA LUMPUR — Unofficial results from Malaysia’s general election Wednesday show the opposition alliance led by former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad is making strong gains at the expense of the ruling coalition in power for 60 years.
In the election for parliament, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s National Front is lagging behind the opposition, which campaigned on a platform of saving Malaysia from a corrupt elite after a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal at a state investment fund set up by Najib.
At least two Cabinet ministers have lost their parliamentary seats and the opposition also made gains in state contests, potentially threatening the grip of Najib’s party on Johor state, where it was founded, and other states.
“There is a massive swing across races. It’s a big shift. This is a repudiation of Najib’s government from all walks of life from the very rural northern states to the more industrial southern coast,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at John Cabot University in Rome.
Angered by the graft scandal, Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years until 2003, emerged from political retirement and joined the opposition in an attempt to oust Najib, his former protege.
The U.S. Justice Department says USD$4.5 billion was looted from 1MBD, the investment fund, by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including $700 million that landed in Najib’s bank account. He denies any wrongdoing.
Mahathir told a press conference on Wednesday evening that he is confident the opposition has won a majority of seats in parliament.
The ruling coalition is “left far behind and the likelihood is that they will not be forming the government,” he said. “This is not fake news.”
Incomplete unofficial counts show the opposition with 88 parliamentary seats to the National Front’s 61. A simple majority in Malaysia’s parliament is 112 seats.
Mahathir accused the Election Commission of delaying the release of official results and warned against the possibility of “hanky panky” to block the will of voters. The commission’s chairman, Mohamad Hashim Abdullah, denied that and urged Malaysians to be patient.
Analysts have previously said the National Front might lose the popular vote but hold onto a majority in parliament due to an electoral system that gives more power to rural Malays, the party’s traditional supporters.
Welsh said it was still not clear which side will win a parliamentary majority but the ruling coalition was at risk of losing numerous states to the opposition.
“The person who has made this happen is Mahathir. He has been a significant game changer. He made people feel that a transition of power is possible,” said Welsh, who was in Kuala Lumpur to observe the polls.
Hugo Brennan, senior Asia analyst at political risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said a possible outcome of the election is that a minor Islamist party will hold the balance of power. It currently has 11 seats, according to unofficial results.
Under Najib, the ruling coalition’s prestige has been eroded by the 1MDB corruption scandal and an unpopular sales tax that hit poor rural Malays particularly hard.
Faced with a reinvigorated opposition, the government has used the levers of power to further tilt the playing field in its favor, critics and analysts say.
Redrawn electoral boundaries were rushed through parliament last month, pushing likely opposition voters into districts that already support the opposition and dividing constituencies along racial lines. A recently passed “fake news” law was an attempt to stifle debate and criticism, opponents said.
The National Front lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 polls and lost the popular vote in 2013, though it still won 60 percent of seats that year.
Story: Eileen Ng, Stephen Wright