World News

Malaysia Opposition, Led by 92-Year-Old, Wins Upset Victory

Posted May 10, 2018 12:05 a.m. EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — In a historic election upset in a country that has been governed by just one party for decades, a Malaysian opposition coalition led by the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad swept to a majority in national parliamentary elections.

In an emotional national address Thursday morning, Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds, said he would “accept the verdict of the people.”

But the election’s result has not yet been settled. The country’s king must now rule on who will be the next prime minister, as the loose coalition of opposition parties led by Mahathir is not officially registered as a single party.

In the end, if Najib is ousted, he may become vulnerable to criminal prosecution. And he still faces a U.S. Justice Department investigation and efforts to recover $1.7 billion in assets said to be acquired with laundered money. The assets include a $27.3 million diamond necklace received by Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor, and a $3.2 million painting by Pablo Picasso that was given to actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

With his coalition’s apparent victory, Mahathir is still the most likely next prime minister, and he would become the world’s oldest elected government leader.

It is the first victory by the opposition in Malaysia’s history, potentially ending the current governing party’s six decades in power. “We have achieved a very substantial majority,” Mahathir said at a news conference early Thursday.

As prime minister, Najib used the power of his office to muzzle critics and thwart investigations into the missing money.

“We are not seeking revenge,” Mahathir said. “What we want to do is restore the rule of law.”

Bernama, the government news agency, reported that the opposition had won the 113 seats in Parliament, one more than needed to form a new government. Mahathir, who led the country for 22 years before retiring at 78, could be sworn in as prime minister almost immediately.

Mahathir had left Najib’s party over the financial scandal and joined the opposition to help oust him.

The test of the unity of Mahathir’s coalition may come if it is allowed form a Cabinet. The coalition includes opposition leaders he once jailed when he was prime minister.

Najib waged a desperate election-eve attempt to gain support, promising this week that if his own coalition won, he would exempt everyone 26 or younger from paying taxes and declare two public holidays next week, just before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Najib’s father and uncle both served as prime minister, and their party, the United Malays National Organization, has always been in charge.

In an urgent bid to oust Najib, the opposition turned to Mahathir, who served as prime minister for 22 years and is often credited with transforming majority-Muslim Malaysia into a modern country. But Mahathir also established the system of centralized power that Najib has enjoyed for years.

On the campaign trail, Mahathir apologized for enabling Najib to become prime minister in 2009.

“The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib,” he told voters last week.

Mahathir, who will turn 93 in July, united a fractured opposition and attracted ethnic Malay voters long loyal to the governing party.

Najib, however, had many political advantages, including a strong party organization, greater access to campaign funds and gerrymandered districts that favor his National Front coalition.

Malaysia also has weak campaign finance laws that allow for a flood of election spending without identifying the source of donations or disclosing how the money is distributed.

Najib has been embroiled for years in a scandal over billions of dollars that disappeared from a government investment fund that he once headed, One Malaysia Development Berhad.

The U.S. Justice Department concluded that $3.5 billion from the Malaysian fund was laundered through financial institutions in the United States and spent on items like expensive real estate, jewelry, paintings and the production of movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

The Justice Department concluded that $731 million in government funds was deposited into bank accounts belonging to Najib. U.S. officials cited the “astonishing greed” of individuals involved in the scam.

Several other countries are also investigating transactions associated with the missing money.

Malaysian officials, however, have said there is no evidence that money from the investment fund was misappropriated. Najib has held on to power by halting investigations, dismissing critics, prosecuting opponents and maintaining the support of his conservative Muslim base.

President Donald Trump, who once golfed with Najib and declared him “my favorite prime minister,” did him a favor in September by inviting him to the White House.

The trip allowed Najib to show voters at home that he could go to the United States without being arrested. While in Washington, he and his entourage stayed at the Trump International Hotel.

Najib mentioned the Washington visit in a statement Monday as he asserted that his government was respected abroad.

“The truth is that Malaysia’s standing in the world is very high,” he said.

More than anyone, Mahathir created the strong government that Najib has used to stay in power. But in his attempt to unseat Najib in this campaign, he joined with opposition leaders he once sent to jail.

Many of Mahathir’s new allies saw aligning with him as the best way to bring back former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who narrowly lost to Najib in 2013 and is scheduled to be released from prison next month after his second conviction on sodomy charges.

Both of Anwar’s convictions — the first under Mahathir and the second under Najib — were widely seen as politically motivated.

In his campaign, Mahathir, who has long criticized Najib’s use of government payouts as a political tool, sought to highlight the investment fund scandal.

“Instead of fighting for its people, country and religion, Najib believes that trust can be bought with money,” he said in his final campaign speech. “We are also not known as having democracy, instead as a kleptocracy.”