World News

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

Posted May 9, 2018 10:44 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2018 10:48 p.m. EDT

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Prime Minister Najib Razak, accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds, lost the Malaysian national elections on Wednesday to a coalition led by his onetime mentor — a former leader who made a political comeback at 92, the government news agency reported.

With his return to power, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad would become the world’s oldest elected government leader.

The victory of his coalition is the first by the opposition in Malaysia’s history, 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 morning.

Najib did not appear in public after the polls closed and was said to be huddling with his top advisers as the votes came in.

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 112 seats in Parliament 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 as it tries to form a cabinet. The coalition includes opposition leaders he once jailed when he was prime minister.

At one point in the evening, the vote count stalled, prompting Mahathir to question whether there were attempts underway to tamper with the results.

“It is likely there will be some hanky-panky being done in order to frustrate the wishes of the people,” he told reporters. “This is very serious.”

Asked what would happen if Najib declared a state of emergency to forestall the election results, Mahathir said, “Malaysians are not violent people, but I don’t think they would allow this kind of thing to happen.”

Hashim Abdullah, chairman of the Election Commission, denied that there was any attempt to subvert the election and said the commission would release the vote results as they came in.

“The commission is not up to any tricks,” he told reporters. “We are not hiding anything.”

On the eve of the election, Najib promised 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 a desperate 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, has tried to unite a fractured opposition and attract ethnic Malay voters long loyal to the governing party.

Najib, however, has 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.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation and filed civil suits to recover $1.7 billion in assets acquired with laundered money, including 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.

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 the 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.”