Updated at 6:08 a.m. ET on 2018-04-29
Official campaigning for next month’s Malaysian general election kicked off Saturday when polling authorities approved nominations for hundreds of candidates, clearing the way for what experts predict will be a close battle between the ruling bloc and opposition.
The governing Barisan Nasional coalition nominated the highest number of candidates nationwide with 642, among them 197 for parliamentary seats, while the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance fielded 634 candidates, including 194 running for parliament, officials with the nation’s Election Commission (EC) said.
Embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year-old ex-PM and top leader of the main opposition bloc, were among parliamentary candidates who checked in at 222 nomination centers nationwide to have their paperwork approved by the EC.
The atmosphere was festive. Supporters from all sides waved partisan flags and colors to mark the occasion known as Nomination Day, which began 11 days of campaigning that will culminate in Malaysia’s 14th general election on May 9.
Both Najib and Mahathir were cleared Saturday to enter the contest for parliamentary seats in their respective constituencies in Pekan, in Pahang state, and Langkawi, in Kedah state.
“I am feeling okay, I’m alright,” Mahathir, who wore a traditional red Malay outfit, told the Straits Times of Singapore. “Yes, of course we are confident.”
Najib, 64, who has been shadowed by corruption allegations stemming from a financial scandal involving the theft of billions of dollars from sovereign wealth fund 1MDB, did not speak to reporters outside the nomination center in Pekan.
The prime minister has denied allegations of wrongdoing connected with deposits of nearly U.S. $700 million in 1MDB-linked money into his private bank accounts, saying the cash was donated by a member of the Saudi royal family.
On Saturday, Najib and his retinue wore blue traditional clothes that matched the colors of Barisan. Mahathir had ruled Malaysia as a strongman for 22 years and a mainstay of Barisan and its anchor party, the United Malays National Organization, but he quit in 2016 and bolted to the opposition in protest of the 1MDB scandal.
Mahathir has been picked to serve as prime minister again should the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) bloc win a majority of seats in the 222-seat Malaysian parliament. Seats in 12 state assemblies are also up for grabs on May 9.
The four-party opposition alliance headed by Mahathir is contesting the election under the banner of People’s Justice Party (PKR) because Malaysia’s Registrar of Societies rejected Pakatan’s application for registration.
When the 13th parliament was dissolved on April 6, Barisan held 130 seats, compared with at least 72 combined seats held by the members of Pakatan. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is neither a member of Barisan or Pakatan, held 13 seats.
Najib is now set to defend his Pekan constituency seat for the tenth time, but he will be in a four-cornered fight against candidates from PKR, PAS as well as an independent candidate.
In the Langkawi race, Mahathir, who retired from government in 2003, will be in a three-way contest with candidates from Barisan and PAS.
Meanwhile, Lim Kit Siang, leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the partners in Pakatan, will defend his Iskandar Puteri parliamentary seat, previously known as Gelang Patah, against Jason Teoh Sew Hock, a candidate from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) party, which is a partner in Barisan.
This will be the 13th time that Lim, 77, is participating in a general election.
Some nominees rejected
While there were no reports that the Election Commission blocked any of the Barisan nominees, five of Pakatan’s candidates reportedly had their nomination papers rejected.
Barisan was assured a no-contest win in the parliamentary seat representing Negeri Sembilan, near Kuala Lumpur, when PKR’s candidate, Streram Sinnasamy, was not allowed into the nomination center in Rembau district for failing to produce an entry pass issued by the commission, EC officials told a news conference in the Malaysian capital.
The blunder was almost repeated by another PKR candidate, Tan Yee Kew, who was contesting the Wangsa Maju parliamentary seat, when she forgot to bring her identity card to the nomination center. However, authorities later allowed her inside after she produced a copy of the card.
Elsewhere, Chua Tian Chang, a PKR candidate for the Batu parliamentary seat, was disqualified because he failed to pay a fine of 2,000 ringgit (U.S. $510), which was ordered by a court after it convicted him on a charge of using foul language against a police officer in 2014, the EC said.
Eric See-To, BN’s deputy director of strategic communications, said Chua Tian should be allowed to contest the seat if he was legally permitted to do so.
“BN is not afraid to contest against Chua Tian. However, I am not a lawyer, nor the judge, so I only have my own opinion,” he said.
‘It will be interesting’
Barisan, which has ruled Malaysia since its independence in 1957, lost its parliamentary supermajority in the last two general elections, and is in for a tough fight in the May 9 polls, experts said.
In the last general election, in 2013, the opposition bloc won the popular vote but Barisan held on to power by retaining a simple majority in parliament.
"[W]e can see a more stiff fight, especially the three-cornered fights,” political observer and analyst Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani told BenarNews about the coming election. He was referring to the Barisan and Pakatan blocs as well as the faith-based PAS party.
“It will be interesting. The number of women candidates also slightly increased,” Mohd Azizuddin added.
He also predicted Barisan would have a high chance of winning of it secured more than 70 percent of the vote from the ethnic Malay majority, but that the opposition was poised to win a large number of non-Malay votes.
“The non-Malays will be the kingmaker,” he said.
On April 26, an independent Malaysian pollster, the Merdeka Center, published results of a recent survey showing that BN would lose nearly 9 percent of Malay votes to the opposition. But the swing vote-effect would not be enough to remove the Barisan government from power, Merdeka said.
Nearly 15 million Malaysians are registered to vote in the May polls.
An earlier version gave the wrong year in which Mahathir Mohamad retired from government and it misidentified the location of the nomination center from which Streram Sinnasamy was barred from entering.