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Longtime Malaysian Leader Mahathir to Challenge Former Party in Elections

7 Jan 2018 2:03 pm
By Yantoultra Ngui 

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Long-retired leader Mahathir Mohamad will head an opposition coalition in national elections later this year, challenging the ruling party that he dominated as Malaysia's prime minister for 22 years.

The 92-year-old Dr. Mahathir was selected by opposition coalition parties at a convention Sunday to lead a campaign against current Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been embroiled in scandals surrounding a state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd.

Mr. Najib is expected to call parliamentary elections in the first half of the year. He leads the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, which has formed every Malaysian government since 1957.

Dr. Mahathir said in a speech that he had long fought for the success of "my party UMNO, but now today I am fighting to take it down...It is not easy for me to destroy the party that I loved for 60 years."

The longtime leader helped transform Malaysia from a commodity dependent backwater into one of Southeast Asia's most prosperous economies during his rule from 1981 to 2003, and he remains an influential figure. He is a harsh critic of Mr. Najib. Both men have accused the other of corruption and abuse of power -- accusations they deny.

Dr. Mahathir embodied UMNO for decades but quit the party last year, citing dissatisfaction with its support for Mr. Najib, who served in many of his cabinets and became prime minister in 2009. Mr. Najib has silenced or sidelined critics within the party over the 1MDB scandals.

Mr. Najib established 1MDB in 2009 to spur Malaysia's economy, but it is now being investigated by authorities in several countries, i ncluding the U.S., on allegations ranging from money-laundering to misappropriation of funds involving billions of dollars. Both 1MDB and Mr. Najib have denied wrongdoing and said they would cooperate with any lawful international investigation.

The election will be an uphill battle for the opposition. The large Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party isn't part of the coalition and its presence as a separate opposition contender in the potentially decisive ethnic Malay Muslim heartland districts could help UMNO.

Ibrahim Suffian, head of the independent polling organization Merdeka Center, said Dr. Mahathir had "a somewhat negative image among some Islamists" and might have hard time winning their votes, even if they want an alternative to UMNO.

The coalition will be led in an unlikely pair -- Dr. Mahathir and Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of imprisoned opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Mr. Anwar was Dr. Mahathir's deputy premier in the late 1990s before relations frayed in a dispute over the Asian financial crisis.

Mr. Anwar, widely considered Malaysia's most gifted politician after Dr. Mahathir, was arrested after leading street protests in 1998 in what was seen as a rebellion against his mentor. He was subsequently imprisoned on a conviction of sodomy.

Upon release in 2004, Mr. Anwar spent years welding a disparate group of opposition parties into a coalition and dealt Mr. Najib and UMNO their worst electoral showing ever in 2013. Mr. Anwar was convicted of sodomy again in 2014. In both convictions, he has claimed to be the victim of politically motivated attacks.

Under the opposition agreement announced Sunday, Dr. Mahathir is to lead the coalition through the elections and become prime minister if it wins. A royal pardon would be sought for Mr. Anwar and, if successful, he would take over the premiership from Dr. Mahathir.

From prison, Mr. Anwar has touted Dr. Mahathir's toughness and government experience as well as his record regarding economic development.

Write to Yantoultra Ngui at yantoultra.ngui@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 07, 2018 09:03 ET (14:03 GMT)

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