Live Blog

Malaysia General Election 2018

Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur on early May 10.

Photographer: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP via Getty Images

Wednesday May 9, 2018
Malaysians voted on Wednesday May 9 in what is a showdown between incumbent leader Najib Razak and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, now aged 92.

At stake is 61 years of unbroken rule by the Barisan Nasional coalition, with Najib, 64, at its helm. Najib is seeking to extend his premiership for a third term --- his challenger Mahathir, who was previously prime minister from 1981 to 2003, is leading opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan on a campaign anchored on removing Najib.

Join us for news and analysis as the election count progresses; and then on Thursday morning in Malaysia for reaction as markets there reopen.
Photographer: MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images
Hi, I am Rosalind Mathieson, and along with colleagues including Linus Chua, Niki Koswanage and Yudith Ho we'll be bringing you full coverage in Malaysia as Najib Razak seeks to extend the ruling coalition's six decades in power. Stick with us through the night as we bring you context and color on the vote count in what is shaping up to be a tightly-fought election.
Here's a rundown of WHAT TO LOOK FOR in the coming hours:
  • Early results should start trickling in any time from now -- with many of the most significant results expected after 11 p.m. local time (4 p.m. London, 11 a.m. New York)
  • The Election Commission is likely to provide an update on the turnout around 9 p.m. - that's around an hour from now
  • With 222 seats in total up for grabs, the magic number to look for is 112 - that's how many Najib's Barisan Nasional needs to retain power or for the opposition to unseat the incumbent
  • Najib’s coalition is set to retain power even though it may lose the popular vote, based on an earlier survey by Merdeka Center for Opinion Research
  • In the last election in 2013, we knew the outcome shortly before 1 a.m. local time (6 p.m. London, 1 p.m. New York) - expect a similar sort of schedule this time, unless the result is very close
  • Voter turnout reached 69 percent as of 3 p.m. local time; some reports estimated the tally at 76 percent, lower than 85 percent in 2013
  • So far, the results are in for one constituency, in the East Malaysian state of Sarawak, won by Barisan Nasional's Yusuf Abd Wahab
Najib Razak (pictured casting his vote today), 64, is seeking to extend his premiership in this election, his second as prime minister since taking office in 2009.
Photo by MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images
While he has weathered the 1MDB controversy as well as internal party revolt over the past few years, he may face a renewed leadership challenge post-election if he fails to improve on the coalition's showing in 2013.
Mahathir Mohamad, 92, is chairman of the opposition coalition and its candidate for prime minister. He quit UMNO and Barisan Nasional in 2016 to set up his own party, after disagreeing with Najib’s leadership.

The opposition is banking on his appeal among Malay voters and civil servants to win the election -- Mahathir (pictured below after voting today) ran the country from 1981 to 2003, making him the country’s longest-serving premier, and is credited with transforming Malaysia into a major trading and economic force in Southeast Asia during his premiership.

Still, he courted controversy for moves such as jailing critics without trial, pegging the currency in 1998, and sacking his then-deputy and heir apparent Anwar Ibrahim.
Photo by JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The election is intensely personal for Prime Minister Najib and former mentor Mahathir, who led the ruling coalition for roughly a third of its 61-year run in power, spent years grooming Najib for a bigger role, and backed him to take power in 2009. Now they are going head to head to run the country.

So how did they fall out?

The tension started not long after Najib took office, with Mahathir criticizing Najib's handling of everything from the economy to managing relations between ethnic groups and the 1MDB controversy. There was also a failed bid by Mahathir's son to become vice-president of UMNO. The two have traded barbs during the election campaign, with Mahathir calling Najib a “thief” and the premier describing Mahathir as “obsessive about control, about calling the shots."
Najib's birthplace of Pahang is the largest state by area in peninsular Malaysia. About 75 percent of its 1.65 million people identify as ethnic Malay, traditionally Barisan Nasional supporters. That will be put to the test as opposition Islamic party PAS is contesting all but one of the state's 42 seats in three- to four-cornered fights.
Najib is standing in Pekan in Pahang state, a seat he won uncontested in 1976 after his father Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia's second prime minister, died while in office and left it vacant. He's held it since, aside from a break from 1982 to 1986 when he served as Chief minister of Pahang.

The picture below shows him speaking outside a polling station in Pekan today.

Photograph: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images
Malaysia sits along a key trading route through the Malacca Strait into the disputed South China Sea, and as a smaller nation risks getting caught in the middle as China expands its economic and military clout in a region the U.S. has dominated for decades.

Najib has called the rise of China ''inevitable" but, citing the theory known as the Thucydides trap, says he doesn't want a rising power to be at odds with an older one.

“China will be the biggest economy, certainly, that’s a fact. But China will not be able to match the United States in terms of being the military superpower as such.”

Read Najib's views on great power relations here:
Najib has survived challenges that would have leveled most leaders in Western democracies, and in an interview last month he talked about how he's lasted so long. Here's what he said:

“I’ve gone through some hard times. Not only recently, but when I started in politics—the rough-and-tumble world of politics. I’ve learned to get along with difficult people, difficult circumstances.”

And the opponents who tried to topple him in the past?

“They couldn’t shake me. The support base was strong. I may appear to be mild in my temperament, but I have a strong resilience in me.”
Some very early results in... Najib's Barisan Nasional has won five of seven seats in Sarawak so far, while Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan has one. Below is an image showing the current total -- still a long way to go. Click on the image to see in more detail.
Source: Election Commission of Malaysia
Some election day factoids: Malaysians voted in the middle of the week for the first time since 1982. Today was declared a public holiday so working Malaysians, especially those in big cities, could return to their registered voting districts. The campaign period was shortened to 11 days from 15 days in 2013.

More results should start trickling in soon with a result possible late tonight or early tomorrow. There were 14.9 million eligible voters for this election, and voting is not compulsory. National news agency Bernama predicted turnout would reach 85 percent: That is one figure to watch for the mood of voters; the latest estimate put it at 69 percent.

Either camp needs a simple majority to win -- at least 112 of 222 parliamentary seats. The ruling coalition currently has 131.

Here's the latest story:
Here's what campaigning in a Malaysian election looks like: rallies -- often in fields, open spaces between shoplots, parking lots and village halls; posters and party flags are festooned along roads and fences; pamphlets are stuffed in mailboxes; candidates do walkabouts to visit voters in markets, villages and neighborhoods. All the activity ends the midnight before voting day. Open rallies need police permission.
Malaysians savor the political rallies of the election season. They come with humorous slogans, catchy phrases (the opposition had this Mandarin chant at its rallies: "5-0-9, change government" -- yes, it rhymes). Barisan Nasional often holds concerts at its rallies with celebrities drawing crowds.
More than ever, social media has been an important campaign tool this election -- for both sides of the political divide. WhatsApp messages spread links to campaign videos (from the official to the home made), venues for political rallies, and arguments for and against keeping the government. Rallies are live-streamed on Facebook Live. The ruling coalition has BNTV on YouTube, while kinitv, also running on YouTube, carries a steady diet of opposition news.
The live streams of the opposition rallies are well watched online, attracting more than 30,000 viewers at times, who tuned in to watch the 92-year-old Mahathir speak well past 11 p.m. on many nights.
Images and video clips from the opposition gatherings have circulated on social media, showing crowds of thousands. Whether those crowds translate into enough votes to change the government remain to be seen -- previous elections have also seen huge crowds at opposition rallies, without delivering enough parliamentary seats to topple Barisan Nasional.
The ruling coalition has picked up another seat in the state of Sarawak, taking its total now there to six. Still very early days, with 222 seats in total up for grabs.

Sarawak is one of the states on Malaysian Borneo, shown below:
Sabah, along with neighboring Sarawak, are Barisan Nasional's traditional vote bank and the two Borneo states were responsible for helping to keep Najib in power in the last election. But it won't be an easy fight this time around as Shafie Apdal, a former federal minister, is seeking to break BN's stranglehold on Sabah.
Shafie has formed a new party called Warisan after Najib dropped him from the cabinet in 2015. Shafie's roots run deep in Sabah and he enjoys strong support on the east coast of the state, although the region's fractured opposition blocs and parties may be the spoiler.
Some facts on Sabah:
  • Barisan Nasional holds 21 of 25 parliamentary seats from Sabah
  • Sabah sits on the northern tip of Borneo between Indonesia, the Philippines and Brunei
  • Illegal immigration is a main concern for local voters apart from living costs
  • Voters also want greater state autonomy
  • It accounts for more than a quarter of Malaysia's crude oil reserves
The economic relationship between Malaysia and China has sparked interest during the campaign. China was the country’s top source of foreign direct investment last year and Malaysia is increasingly a party of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road infrastructure program.

Mahathir said in a recent interview that Chinese companies don’t employ locals or bring in capital and technology to Malaysia:

“Lots of people don’t like Chinese investments."

Najib refutes claims the Belt and Road projects come with strings attached:

“For example a lot of the infrastructure work will be done by Malaysian companies and they are to employ Malaysian people to work on that project."
So what of the parties contesting today's election?

The United Malays National Organisation -- or UMNO -- is the biggest party in Malaysia and the dominant member of ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

The Malay-based party postponed its 2017 election to April next year to focus on the general election; in UMNO’s last party polls in 2013, Najib won the presidency uncontested. Historically, the president of UMNO becomes Barisan Nasional chairman and the prime minister of Malaysia.
Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia is the Malay-based opposition party that Mahathir set up after he left UMNO following his spat with Najib. PPBM aims to wrest the ethnic Malay vote from UMNO; the Malays, traditionally pro-establishment, will be key to winning the election.

PPBM was issued a 30-day ban on campaigning by the Registrar of Societies in April for failing to submit requested documents on time; that ban was suspended by the High Court pending an appeal by the party.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat was founded in 1999 in the wake of former deputy finance minister Anwar's sacking from the government by then-prime minister Mahathir. Anwar remains the "de facto leader" of the party while his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is the president and his daughter Nurul Izzah Anwar a vice-president.

Its allies in Pakatan Harapan agreed last month to use PKR’s logo as a common symbol for this election, in the spirit of unity.
Pakatan Harapan rose out of the ashes of previous opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat, which won the popular vote in the 2013 election.

The jailing of Pakatan Rakyat's leader Anwar Ibrahim followed by feuds on policies including on the use of Shariah law led to Islamic party PAS breaking away and causing the bloc to implode. The remaining parties formed Pakatan Harapan in 2015 with Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (pictured with Mahathir at a rally in April) at the helm. Mahathir's Malaysian United Indigenous Party, or PPBM, joined the coalition only last year.
Photograph: MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images
But the alliance remains an uneasy one against the backdrop of policy differences. For example, Mahathir's PPBM champions Malay nationalism, while the People's Justice Party wants to review affirmative action programs that benefit ethnic Malays.
Anwar Ibrahim, 70, now leads the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan from behind bars -- he was jailed in 2015 over a sodomy conviction, a charge which he says is politically motivated. He is scheduled to be freed on June 8, although the law prevents him from taking part in politics for the next five years.
Photographer: Hiekal Rosli/AFP/Getty Images
The opposition plans to apply for a royal pardon for Anwar should it win; this would allow Anwar to contest a by-election and potentially become prime minister after Mahathir. Anwar became the face of the opposition after he was sacked from the government in 1998 and jailed a year later during Mahathir’s premiership -- the two reconciled with a handshake in 2016 and have joined forces.
Here are some other people to look out for as the count progresses over the next few hours:

Nurul Izzah Anwar, 37, is the vice-president of PKR and eldest daughter of jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Known as the "princess of reform," her electoral debut a decade ago saw her defeating a minister for a parliament seat in Kuala Lumpur; five years later, she defended that seat against another minister, albeit with a slimmer victory margin. She's pictured below speaking to supporters in Kuala Lumpur in 2015.

Today she is contesting a seat previously held by her parents, in the opposition-held state of Penang.
Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Mukhriz Mahathir, 53, is the only one of Mahathir’s seven children to join politics. He is the deputy president of PPBM, the fledgling Malay-based opposition party that his father chairs. Mukhriz was expelled from UMNO and removed as the chief minister of Kedah state in 2016 for echoing his father’s criticism against Najib.

Photographer: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg
Mukhriz is also the main cause for the rift between Najib and Mahathir, according to Najib -- he said Mahathir declared an "open war" against him after Mukhriz lost his bid to become vice-president of UMNO in 2013.
Lim Kit Siang, 77, is Malaysia's longest serving parliamentary opposition leader and the driving force behind the Chinese-majority opposition party DAP.

He is defending his seat in the southern state of Johor. Najib has accused Lim of being the opposition coalition's "de facto leader" because DAP has the most parliament seats in the group -- a charge that Lim has denied.
Lim Kit Siang's son, Lim Guan Eng, is DAP's secretary-general and the chief minister of Penang, a state that has been under the opposition party's control since 2008.
Photo by Muhammad Shahrizal/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The younger Lim is embroiled in an ongoing corruption trial involving the purchase of a bungalow. He is defending his state and parliamentary seat in this election.
Here's a CATCHUP of what we've learnt so far:
  • Results are in for 10 seats -- all in the east Malaysian state of Sarawak, with the ruling coalition taking 6, Mahathir's team getting 3, and an independent party with 1
  • The election pits incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak and the Barisan Nasional ruling alliance against 92-year-old former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is leading the four-party opposition alliance called Pakatan Harapan
  • If Najib's coalition wins, it'll extend a 61-year unbroken run in power -- and likely provide continuity in policy
  • If BN loses, Malaysia could find itself facing a very different political environment
And here's a rundown of WHAT TO LOOK FOR in the coming hours:
  • Early results are still just starting to trickle in -- with many of the most significant results expected after 11pm local time (4pm London, 11am New York)
  • The Election Commission is likely to provide an update on the turnout in about an hour
  • With 222 seats in total up for grabs, so the number we're watching out for is 112 -- that's how many Najib's Barisan Nasional needs to retain power or for the opposition to unseat the incumbent
  • In the last Malaysian general election in 2013, we knew the outcome shortly before 1am local time (6pm London, 1pm New York)
  • Voter turnout reached 69 percent as of 3pm local time (8am London, 3 am New York); some reports estimated the tally at 76 percent, lower than 85 percent in 2013
One furor today has been over claims that mobile phones for party officials -- on both sides of the fence -- were being spammed with calls from unknown overseas numbers every few seconds.

Complaints were made by Barisan Nasional candidates in several states, as well as some opposition leaders.

Najib ordered an investigation. Here's what he said on his Twitter account:
"I severely condemn the `Spam Call' tactics that many BN leaders have received from international numbers. The phones that were attacked by `Spam' can not function as normal. Moreover, many BN websites were made inaccessible. I have made instructions for action to be taken immediately."
Wondering the latest on 1MDB? Swiss, U.S. and Singaporean authorities have conducted several years of probes into allegations that billions were diverted from the fund. Some investigations continue. Swiss prosecutors recently opened criminal proceedings to look into two officials of Saudi Arabian oil producer PetroSaudi who were allegedly tied to the affair. Other recent developments:
  • The producer of the "The Wolf of Wall Street" agreed to pay $60 million to settle claims it financed the movie with money taken from 1MDB
  • Low Taek Jho, the Malaysian financier accused by the U.S. of orchestrating the alleged siphoning of 1MDB money, is balking at Justice Department plans to move his $250 million yacht to the U.S. from Indonesia, an effort to recover assets the DOJ claims were acquired with stolen funds
A win for Najib would potentially help him move past a three-year scandal over state fund 1MDB. Here's a quick rundown:
  • 1MDB was set up by Najib to attract foreign investment. But it accumulated billions of dollars in debt and has been at the center of multiple probes into alleged graft and money laundering.
  • Najib himself faced claims he misappropriated $700 million into his personal accounts before the last election. He said it was a donation from Saudi royals and most was returned.
  • While the furor spawned a money trail that led to Hollywood blockbuster "The Wolf of Wall Street," a $250 million yacht and a $3.8 million diamond given to actress Miranda Kerr, there is little evidence it resonated at home with voters, especially in rural areas, with their bigger concern cost of living issues.

Read Najib's comments on 1MDB in an exclusive interview last month with Bloomberg:
What about 1MDB itself? It says it expects to soon complete its audit after auditors were allowed to access original financial records at police HQ. CEO Arul Kanda said in a Bloomberg Television interview that 1MDB has cut its debt to 31 billion ringgit ($7.9 billion) from a peak of 50 billion ringgit, and most debt is long term. He also said the company has never been contacted by international investigators.

You can see the interview on the terminal by clicking the image below; or click here to see it on the web.
Source: Bloomberg
The 1MDB scandal raised global questions about probity in Malaysia, something the opposition sought to make a campaign issue. The latest Corruption Perceptions Index published in February ranked Malaysia 62nd in a list of 180 countries, the same as Cuba and worse than Greece.
An update as the count progresses today -- Wan Azizah Wan Ismail (pictured earlier), wife of Anwar Ibrahim (de facto leader of opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan) has successfully defended her seat in Pandan in Selangor state, an official from her party said. She's the opposition coalition's candidate for deputy prime minister.
Photographer: AFP via Getty Images