Asia-Pacific

Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad on course to be world's oldest elected leader

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Mahathir Mohamad is set to become the world's oldest elected leader at 92, after a shock win in Malaysia's election.

Malaysian veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad is set to become the world's oldest elected leader at 92 after clinching Malaysia's bitterly-fought election.

He said he expected to be sworn in as prime minister after his stunning election win on Thursday, adding there was an "urgency" for him to take office.

"We expect today for me to be sworn in as prime minister," he told a press conference, addressing concerns over a delay by saying that some "confusion" over the process had now been cleared up.

"We hope by 5pm today we will have a prime minister. Any delay means there is no government. If there is no government there is no law or any institutions."

State news agency Bernama reported he will be sworn in at 9.30pm local time. 

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak.
AAP

It came as defeated leader Najib Razak said Thursday he accepted the will of the people after the coalition that has led the country for six decades lost.

He added that it was up to the nation's king to decide who would become the next prime minister.

At a televised press conference, Najib said, "I and my colleagues accept the verdict of the people."

"The national front will respect whatever decision is made by the king," he said. "I urge all Malaysians to be calm and to trust the king's wisdom to make the best choice."

Analysts warned he could be trying to buy time to win defections from other parties over to his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, in what would be a desperate bid to cling to power despite a landslide defeat.

Mahathir came out of retirement to take on his former protege Najib, after the leader became embroiled in a massive corruption scandal involving state fund 1MDB that battered Malaysia's international standing.

The veteran politician's victory - announced in the early hours after a bitter, racially charged campaign - defied expectations of a win by BN and sparked celebrations on the streets of the capital Kuala Lumpur overnight.

The opposition faced an uphill battle due to what critics said were no-holds-barred attempts by Najib to hang on to power.

His government was accused of gerrymandering while activists said he hurled cash and gifts at voters and there were a litany of problems with the electoral roll, including dead people appearing on the list.

In his first public comments since the results, Najib - looking shattered after the shock loss - told a press conference: "I accept the verdict of the people and BN is committed to the principles of democracy."

However, he added that "because no party got a simple majority, the king will decide in a while who will get the confidence of the parliament."

To claim a simple majority in parliament, a party or coalition would require 112 seats.

The opposition alliance, Pact of Hope, along with a small ally on Borneo island, won 121. BN won just 79 - down from 133 previously.

However, the official Election Commission listed the scores for the alliance's separate component parties when they released the results, not the overall score for the alliance as a whole.

Mahathir Mohamad
Opposition party supporter cheer after after Mahathir Mohamad claims the opposition party has wins the general election.
AAP

'Unstatesmanlike' 

James Chin, a Malaysia expert from the University of Tasmania, said Najib's speech was not a concession and there was speculation that he was trying to persuade MPs from other parties to defect to BN.

"This is dangerous - Malaysians won't accept a long transition period," he told AFP.

Bridget Welsh, an analyst from John Cabot University, slammed his speech as "unstatesmanlike".

"He seems to be in denial. It sends out a message that he's willing to use tactics such as defections and buying people to try to stay in power."

Najib's remarks came as speculation swirled about why Mahathir had not been sworn in as prime minister Thursday, as had been widely expected.

Najib's defeat could be just the start of his problems - Mahathir has vowed to bring him to justice over allegations that billions of dollars were looted from 1MDB, which the scandal-hit leader set up and oversaw.

Mahathir's return to the political frontlines saw him reconcile with jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim - his former nemesis.

Despite what critics say were BN's blatant attempts at cheating, the explosive corruption allegations, coupled with anger at rising living costs, proved too much for Malaysia's 15 million voters.

Citizens were already sick of racially divisive politics in the multi-ethnic country and graft scandals under years of rule by the coalition.

The initial euphoria at the opposition victory will likely give way to some apprehension.

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A polarising figure

Mahathir is a polarising figure and many voters are suspicious of him following his iron-fist rule as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.

But 64-year-old Najib's popularity dropped sharply over the past three years, partly due to a scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off.

Mahathir was once Najib’s mentor but he left UMNO over the 1MDB affair and joined the opposition. Najib, who was chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and he has been cleared of any offence by Malaysia’s attorney general.

In an even more unlikely change of heart, Mahathir buried a feud with Anwar, 70, last year and the two agreed to join forces to topple Najib.

Mahathir Mohamad on the campaign trail.
Mahathir Mohamad on the campaign trail.
AAP

Mahathir sacked Anwar as his deputy prime minister in 1998. Anwar then started a movement known as 'Reformasi' - reform - to end UMNO’s race- and patronage-based governance. However, he was stopped in his tracks by charges of sodomy and graft, which he denied, but for which he was jailed.

Anwar was imprisoned again in 2015, when Najib was prime minister, after another sodomy charge, which he described as a politically motivated attempt to end his career.

Anwar is due to be released from prison in June. Mahathir has vowed to get him a royal pardon, and later hand over the premiership to him.

'Witnessing history'

Asifa Hanifah joined thousands of opposition supporters in central Kuala Lumpur who waved flags, cheered and honked car horns.

"The time for change has come, and I hope the people in power realise this," she said.

Suva Selvan, a 48-year-old doctor, said he felt the country had just won its independence.

"I feel that with this change we probably can see something better in the future... our hope for the future is a better government, fair, free and united," he said.

Malaysia is now moving into uncharted political terrain, said Keith Leong, head of research at the KRA Group consultancy.

"We are witnessing history being made in this country," he said.

While Merdeka Centre CEO Ibrahim Suffian said, "it was a total Malay earthquake that has changed the political landscape of the country".

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was looking forward to working with the Malaysian government following the election results.

"We will wait and see. It is the decision of the Malaysian people and we have always worked well with the government of Malaysia and we look forward to the results of the election," he told ABC Radio.

'A significant shift' in the vote

Ethnic-Malay Muslims have long tended to support BN for affirmative-action policies that give them government contracts, cheap housing and guaranteed university admissions.

Mahathir's alliance, which counts on urban votes and support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, had hoped the veteran Malay leader would win over voters usually loyal to BN. That strategy appeared to have paid off.

Najib Razak had been in power since April 2009.
Najib Razak had been in power since April 2009.
AAP

"There has been a significant shift in the Malay vote," said Rashaad Ali, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Mahathir’s opposition wrested control of key states Johor and Kedah, and reduced BN’s grip in strongholds like Sarawak.

- Additional reporting: AFP

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