Malaysians are heading to the polls on Wednesday to vote in the country’s 14th general election.
The vote pits a nonagenarian come out of political retirement against a former protégé.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
If this were a film, the storyline would have been dismissed as far-fetched. But that’s politics in Malaysia.
The election has had voters, analysts, and armchair commentators transfixed.
Al Jazeera looks at the main candidates and key issues surrounding the elections.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son of a former prime minister and a career politician, is a member of the political elite.
His ruling right-wing party Barisan Nasional has been in power since the country gained independence in 1957.
But Najib is also linked to a corruption scandal at Malaysia’s state-owned investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), from which officials are alleged to have stolen more than $4.5bn.
Some of that money is alleged to have ended up in Najib’s personal bank account.
Najib denied any wrongdoing and said the money was a donation from the Saudi royal family, which he had since returned.
So far, he’s survived the scandal. But the election is also a fight for his political future. He might face a challenge from within his party if Barisan Nasional were to perform worse in this election than it did the last.
The opposition has made steady gains in the last two elections – breaking Barisan Nasional’s two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2008 and winning the popular vote in 2013.
The Mahathir effect
Competing against Najib is his one-time mentor and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
He quit his old party, formed a new one, and forged an alliance with opposition politicians, some of whom he had imprisoned during his time as leader, including his one-time deputy prime minister turned opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
The 92-year-old Mahathir’s return to politics, as chairman of Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, gave a new lease of life to the opposition alliance, which had been floundering since its leader Ibrahim was jailed for sodomy on what his supporters said were politically motivated charges.
Mahathir’s campaign rallies have been highly charged affairs, packed with supporters who clapped and cheered when the veteran politician came on stage.
“This time, we have a chance to defeat the government because we are united”, he told a rally in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
“Why do we want to defeat them? Because they are a government of thieves,” he thundered to roars of approval from the 10,000 strong crowd.
But Mahathir, known for his authoritarian ways, is also a divisive figure. The opposition’s ready acceptance of him left many young voters disillusioned and alienated.
Others have argued that Mahathir’s party, the only one in the opposition alliance that champions the rights of the Malays, the biggest ethnic group in the country, represents the best hope of capturing votes in the Malay heartland.
Rising cost of living
In these rural constituencies, which have long been regarded as government strongholds, the 1MDB scandal hardly resonates.
Discontent, however, has begun to stir over the rising cost of living. When Al Jazeera visited Sabak Bernam, a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, Mohd Fadli Rusni, a fisherman told us, “We are working longer hours just to be able to survive.”
He blamed the goods and services tax, imposed three years ago, for the increase in overall costs.
But another voter in Sabak Bernam told us he still felt a sense of gratitude for all the government has done for them.
Barisan Nasional has continued to shower largesse on the electorate. In the run-up to the elections, Najib doled out cash handouts aimed at civil servants and low-income groups, and promised to increase minimum wage should he win the election.
Unequal playing field
A survey released by pollster Merdeka Center last week suggests the opposition has made some gains, but not enough to control Parliament.
Opposition politicians have argued that the deck is unfairly stacked against them, pointing to the recent push to redraw electoral boundaries in a way they say favours the ruling alliance.
Urban voters, who tend to be opposition supporters, are packed into large constituencies, while rural seats, which tend to support the government, are much smaller.
This means it would take more votes to elect an opposition MP than a government one.
Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist at Penang Institute, told Al Jazeera: “The minimum of vote share the government needs to win … is only 16.5 percent because the smallest 112 constituencies contain only 33 percent of electorate.”
The Election Commission decision to hold polling on a Wednesday is also seen by some as a ploy to lower voter turnout.
Eric See-To, Barisan Nasionals Deputy Director for Strategic Communications, refuted allegations of bias.
He said: “These claims of unfairness have always been the agenda of the opposition and it is perhaps to gain sympathy votes, to prove that they are oppressed, and perhaps to act as a reason for when they fail.”
The ruling alliance is also likely to benefit from three-cornered fights that will split the opposition vote.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) used to be part of the opposition alliance. However, a disagreement over its push to implement the Islamic penal code, known as hudud, in Kelantan state, led to a breakup of the pact.
PAS is contesting in 158 out of 222 parliament seats, the highest number it has ever fielded.
Who will win?
Many analysts say the election will be close but predict victory for Barisan Nasional.
Political risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a recent report that the opposition alliance had only a 15 percent chance of winning.
Pakatan Harapan will likely capture the popular vote, but in Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, that won’t mean they can rule the country.