Malaysia PM Najib Razak faces tough electoral battle with massive financial scandal foremost on voters' minds

Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak put his party on a war footing Thursday as polls loom, vowing to "fight till the end" despite a massive financial scandal that has rocked his government.

The leader told the annual assembly of his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) — which has ruled Muslim-majority Malaysia for six decades at the head of a coalition — that the country was facing a "crucial election".

"In this battle we fight till the end, in this election we will emerge victorious", he told thousands of cheering delegates wearing the red colours of his party in Kuala Lumpur.

Elections must be called by August at the latest. Najib did not hint at a date in his speech but speculation is swirling that they will be take place in early 2018.

File image of Malaysian PM Najib Rajak. Getty Images

File image of Malaysian PM Najib Rajak. Getty Images

Najib's chances of winning a third term have been dented by explosive graft allegations. Billions were looted from the 1MDB sovereign wealth fund that he founded in complex overseas deals which are being investigated in several countries.

Both Najib, who made no mention of the scandal during Thursday's speech, and the fund deny any wrongdoing.

The US Justice Department has led the charge in tackling the alleged pillaging, launching lawsuits through which it is seeking to recover $1.7 billion in assets thought to have been purchased with looted money, from artwork to high-end real estate.

This week US Attorney General Jeff Sessions told a conference in Washington that the 1MDB scandal was "kleptocracy at its worst".

Election race upended

The election race has also been upended by the emergence of elderly former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who led Malaysia for 22 years, as a key figure in the main opposition alliance. Mahathir, 92, has come out of retirement to try to oust the government over the 1MDB scandal, teaming up with his former nemesis, jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

In his speech at the UMNO gathering, the most closely watched event in Malaysia's political calendar, Najib, 64, accused Mahathir of having "crossed the line". "He has the audacity to unite with his political enemies," he said.

He also warned that if the opposition won the election then Muslim Malays, about 60 percent of the country's 32 million people, "will become homeless and despised in their own country".

He sought to rally Muslims over US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, saying that "the voice of Muslims in Malaysia will reverberate across the world" in opposition to the move.

UMNO has long championed the Malay cause in a country that is home to substantial ethnic and religious minorities, and has enshrined policies that favour them.

Most observers believe that Najib and the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition will edge another victory in the elections, as the opposition remains weak with leading light Anwar still in jail following a 2015 sodomy conviction his supporters say was politically-motivated.

Najib has overcome the worst of the 1MDB crisis, which peaked in 2015, purging critics from government and cracking down on dissent.

"BN, and especially UMNO, is set to win big," said Oh Ei Sun, from Malaysian think-tank the Pacific Research Center. "The opposition is definitely not shaping up for a real fight."

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Updated Date: Dec 07, 2017 15:02:46 IST

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