With police investigating him under Malaysia’s new anti-“fake news” law, Mahathir Mohamad, the nearly 93-year-old former prime minister turned opposition frontman, says his country faces its dirtiest election on Wednesday. The governing coalition “will cheat like mad, they will steal votes, but still I think we can win,” Mahathir said in an interview with The Times, stepping off a makeshift stage and into a nearby BMW waiting to take him to yet another campaign rally. Defying his age, Mahathir had just wrapped up a half-hour stump speech in this farming area about a 20-mile drive from Aloh Setar, the capital of Kedah state, his home base. Kedah has typically been a government stronghold, although the green flags of Malaysia’s Islamist party also flutter along its roadsides. Mahathir wants to swing the state, and enough rural Muslim Malays across the country, to his four-party opposition grouping known as the Alliance of Hope.
That will be tough. The governing coalition has run the country since independence in 1957, and everywhere there are reminders of its sway. In Aloh Setar, and across nearby Penang state, a major tourism destination to the south, the dark blue banners and billboards of the ruling National Front are ubiquitous — another reminder that the opposing coalition, even one led by one of 20th century Asia’s most formidable politicians, faces a daunting adversary.
An authoritarian and anti-Western prime minister from 1981 to 2003, Mahathir made a surprising and belated switch to backing the liberal reformist platform of the opposition in 2016, turning on Prime Minister Najib Razak over allegations that around $700 million in public money was diverted from a state development fund into the incumbent’s bank accounts.
Malaysian courts exonerated the prime minister, who said the money was a Saudi Arabian donation that he mostly repaid. However the state fund is under investigation in several countries, including over alleged money laundering in the U.S. (Najib has not been named in the U.S. investigation and the matter was not raised by President Trump when the prime minister visited the U.S. last year.)