Summary

Malaysians head to the polls on May 9 to decide their country’s next prime minister.

The leading candidates are the incumbent, Prime Minister Najib Razak, and the 92-year-old former strongman prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. Najib was originally groomed for office by Mahathir, but the two had a falling out after Najib was linked to a major corruption scandal, causing Mahathir to famously lament that his role in Najib’s rise was the biggest mistake of his life.

Though the popular tide has recently been turning in favor of Mahathir, his Pakatan Harapan coalition will have to overcome some major institutional hurdles if it is to seize power. Whatever the final result, the election projects to be the most consequential since Malaysia gained independence in 1957.

 

Impact

Corruption a central issue in the election. The Malaysian political field is still being rocked by a corruption scandal that first broke in 2015. The scandal centered on the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a fund that was originally set up in 2009 to promote economic development. After the fund starting falling behind on payments to bondholders in 2015, it began attracting attention from US press outlets and the US Justice Department. Their collective investigations uncovered some $681 million of missing money being traced to Prime Minister Najib’s personal bank accounts, along with billions of other disbursements to individuals and executives with links to Najib. In all, approx. $2.6 billion worth of government money was embezzled trough 1MDB while Najib sat on its advisory board.

Former prime minister Mahathir is said to have been completely incensed when the scandal broke, and he decided to come out of political retirement to unseat his wayward protégé.