Malaysia was counting votes Wednesday after one of the country’s fiercest ever election battles which has pitted scandal-hit Prime Minister Najib Razak against his one-time mentor, 92-year-old former authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad.
Najib is seeking to retain power at the head of a regime that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, but veteran ex-leader Mahathir’s shock comeback has upended the election race.
Angered by a massive financial scandal that has tarnished Malaysia’s international image, Mahathir has teamed up with an alliance of parties that opposed him when he was in power, and which includes jailed opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim — his former nemesis.
Najib’s ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is seen as likely to retain power mainly due to an electoral system critics say has been heavily manipulated to favour the government, but analysts predict it will lose the popular vote for the second consecutive election.
“I am confident of winning,” ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad told reporters. “I feel very good, I am confident unless Najib cheats.”
Results started trickling in a few hours after polls closed, with BN having a slight early lead with 14 seats to nine for the opposition, according to the Election Commission.
But some key BN figures appeared to have fallen, with unofficial results on Bernama state news agency showing the heads of the ethnic Indian and Chinese parties in the coalition had lost their seats.
Earlier, voters flocked in large numbers to polling stations throughout the day, leading to hours-long queues in many places and prompting complaints from voters and opposition leaders about people potentially missing out on voting.
Before polls closed, Mahathir said he was worried voters may not get the chance to cast their ballots.
“I have received reports from voting centres that many voters are gathered outside polling stations and that the process was moving quite slowly,” he said.
“I hope (people) will be given the right to vote.”
Election officials were yet to disclose the final turnout, although analysts said it could be lower than at the 2013 election, when it was 85 percent. This would be a blow to the opposition who have said they need a high turnout.
There were other complaints of dirty tricks at the poll, with both opposition leaders and senior BN members claiming that their phones had been jammed by a flood of spam calls to stop them from communicating with their teams.
The internet regulator blamed the attacks on “bots” (automated programmes) and said it would investigate.
The race has been fiercely contested, and the opposition alliance has gained ground in recent weeks as Mahathir, who ruled with an iron fist for 22 years, chipped away at the government’s key support base, the Muslim Malay majority.
Earlier Mahathir cast his ballot alongside his wife in the northern city of Alor Setar, and said he was confident of victory.
Najib, a political blue blood and son of Malaysia’s second prime minister, voted in his constituency of Pekan.