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Malaysia's Najib Razak is in a fight for his political life

Malaysia's general election on Wednesday -- the country's 14th since gaining independence -- is fast turning out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the country's 61-year history.

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Marc Lourdes (CNN)
(CNN) — Malaysia's general election on Wednesday -- the country's 14th since gaining independence -- is fast turning out to be one of the most pivotal moments in the country's 61-year history.

Incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak is seeking re-election and while the vote, by rights, should be his to win, a reinvigorated opposition led by his former mentor is mounting an unprecedented challenge.

Even if his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition wins, a poor performance at the polls could see a challenge to Najib's leadership from within his own party.

An electoral loss would be even more devastating and would surely spell the end of his career as Prime Minister, leader of BN and most likely as a politician.

In many ways, the choice Malaysians will make at the polls on May 9 will not be between the ruling coalition and the slew of opposition parties lined up against it -- instead, the vote is being seen as a direct referendum on Najib himself.

In his maiden outing as prime minister five years ago, he performed less than admirably. While his coalition won the parliamentary majority it needed to form a government, it garnered only about 47% of the popular vote. It was an outcome unheard of in Malaysian politics, where Najib's coalition has ruled uninterrupted since the country gained independence in 1957.

Mahathir enters fray

There is one big reason why Wednesday's election isn't seen as a shoo-in for Najib: Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's former strongman leader, who ruled the country for 22 years before retiring in 2003, has come back in an attempt to oust the Prime Minister.

The 92-year-old's antipathy to Najib is so fierce, he has allied himself to the opposition and partnered with people who've been his sworn enemies for much of his political life.

Chief among them is Anwar Ibrahim, the deputy prime minister Mahathir once imprisoned for corruption and sodomy.

Unable to contest because he is once again serving a prison term for sodomy -- the defacto opposition leader Anwar gave his blessing for Mahathir to stand as the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition, with Anwar's wife Wan Azizah as Mahathir's running mate.

While Mahathir and Anwar are the most charismatic politicians Malaysia has and could win the popular vote, it will take nothing less than a miracle for them to oust Najib.

A recent redrawing of the electoral map has skewed representation away from urban areas and Chinese communities, both of whom have largely boycotted the government, toward rural, ethnic Malay voters that have traditionally formed the ruling coalition's power base. Bridget Welsh, a noted academic and expert on Malaysian politics, estimates that the changes, which have largely occurred in marginal seats, has disproportionately advantaged Barisan Nasional. Welsh calculates that Najib could march back into Parliament with as little as 16.5% of the popular vote.

While other analysts put that estimate slightly higher - at around a third of the popular vote - the fact remains that the gerrymandering has affected the actual public endorsement Najib and Barisan Nasional needs to retain power.

These aren't the only disadvantages the opposition has had to contend with. The country's Election Commission has banned the opposition from using Mahathir's image on campaign posters and Mahathir himself is currently being investigated by the police under the country's new Anti-Fake News law, which is being seen as a way to stifle criticism.

Political survivor

The son of Malaysia's second prime minister, Najib is a politician through and through.

He became a Member of Parliament at the age of 23, when he ran for the seat left vacant by his father's death. By 25, he was already a deputy minister and member of then-Prime Minister Mahathir's cabinet.

He was not even 30 when he became the chief minister of Pahang state (the equivalent of a governor in the United States), and by 1986, at the age of 33, Mahathir had appointed him the Minister of Youth and Sports for the country.

Najib continued to rise through the ranks of his party and national politics. He held a slew of crucial ministerial portfolios, such as education and defense, a role he held twice.

By 2008 Najib, with the backing of his party and luminaries such as Mahathir, had been appointed Prime Minister.

Najib's nine-year tenure has been anything but easy, and the years spent in the high-pressure job has turned his salt and pepper hair into a snow-white puff.

The most internationally well-known issue he's had to deal with has been the corruption allegations leveled against him, which claim that hundreds of millions of dollars from a state fund, called 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, had been siphoned into his private bank accounts.

While Najib has for the main part navigated this -- and other -- storms by using his years of political nous to great effect, he now faces a unique set of challenges.

Mahathir, in his prime, had full control over the nation's media -- which was almost entirely owned by the government or political parties allied to Mahathir.

However, Najib's world is one of the internet and social media, and the result is that he is unable to control the narrative the way Mahathir did. This gives Mahathir and the opposition a powerful soapbox from which to rain scathing blows against Najib and Barisan Nasional.

While he also weathered his share of political scandals, Mahathir's era is largely seen -- and no doubt helped by a heaping dose of nostalgia -- as a time of plenty, while Najib's reign has coincided more and more with increased austerity and a tightening of belts for the people of the country.

Out-of-touch elites?

It doesn't help that Najib and his wife, Rosmah Mansor, as well as most BN politicians are also hugely unpopular for being seen as enjoying lavish lifestyles while regular people suffer. Filings by the US Department of Justice in the wake of the 1MDB scandal last year claimed almost $30 million of the fund's money was spent buying jewelry for Rosmah. The accusations were dismissed by Najib's office as "baseless allegations."

It is this, more than the 1MDB scandal itself, that voters bristle at. The Malaysian public are an unusually pragmatic electorate -- they are hugely tolerant of political tomfoolery, as long as it doesn't interfere too much with daily life. It is when it begins to eat into bread and butter issues that the voters usually slap back.

It has happened in the past two elections -- 2008 was described as the elections in which there was a Chinese tsunami, as voters from that ethnic group abandoned the government in droves over increasing racial and religious inequalities.

Fast forward to 2018 and Mahathir is aiming for a Malay tsunami.

Malay-Muslims form the majority of the electorate and it is impossible to win an election without their support. Mahathir is one of the few people who has the clout and the track record to win that support from Najib and BN.

The wily former leader isn't ashamed of pulling at people's heartstrings -- he released a video recently of himself telling a couple of children why he needs to come out of retirement -- and he has the advantage of nostalgia.

People tend to view his era through rose-tinted lenses and may be prepared to forgive him for the numerous scandals and abuses of power during his time as leader, if they think he can wrest the country from Najib.

For Mahathir and 70-year-old Anwar, it is likely the last roll of the dice. For Najib, it will be most probably the sternest test he will face in his political career.

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