Mahathir Accuses Malaysian Government of Fighting ‘Dirty’ in Election

DENGKIL, Malaysia—The campaign to lead Malaysia is turning testy as the May 9 election approaches, suggesting that the vote will do little to bridge the divides now characterizing this prosperous, Muslim-majority nation.

The newly minted opposition leader, 92-year-old former Premier Mahathir Mohamad, on Tuesday accused the government of systematically sabotaging his current alliance.

“Their goal is to win, but not in a clean fight, in a dirty fight,” Dr. Mahathir said after at a campaign stop in Dengkil, a small town south of Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, at an event in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, has faced questions about his role in the 1MDB scandal, to which he has denied any wrongdoing. Photo: fazry ismail/epa-efe/rex/shutter/EPA/Shutterstock

As an example of alleged government interference, Dr. Mahathir accused government supporters of tampering with a plane he had chartered to take him to a rally last weekend. He ended up using another plane provided by a friend.

The Civil Aviation Authority Malaysia denied that the plane had been sabotaged and said it couldn’t take off because air had leaked from one of the front landing tires. It was, the authority said, a relatively minor fault.

Responding to the accusation, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that Dr. Mahathir has lost little flair for the drama that characterized his years in power from 1981 to 2003. He suggested that Dr. Mahathir would admit himself to hospital on election day to win sympathy votes. “I hope that voters will not fall victim to this,” Mr. Ahmad Zahid said.

The claims and rebuttals reflect the tensions of the five-week campaign, which was preceded by last-minute redistricting that the opposition said could enable the ruling National Front coalition to eke out a majority in Parliament even if it finishes far behind in the popular vote. The National Front has led every Malaysian government since independence in 1957.

The government also pushed through a law in April making the publication of fake news punishable by up to six years in prison, which critics say could inhibit debate. The government rejects that either move was intended to tip the elections.

Tumultuous Times

Former strongman Mahathir Mohamad has been a fixture of Malaysian politics for nearly 50 years.

1950

1970

1990

1957

Malaysia wins independence from Britain and a government is formed by the United Malays National Organization, which still holds sway more than 60 years later.

Malaysia wins independence from Britain and a government is formed by the United Malays National Organization, which still holds sway more than 60 years later.Photo: Getty Images

Malaysia introduces an affirmative-action program for the majority Malay population after ethnic Chinese, shown here in 1969, were targeted in race riots two years earlier. Photo: Associated Press

Mahathir Mohamad becomes prime minister and begins centralizing power.Photo: Associated Press

Dr. Mahathir fires his deputy Anwar Ibrahim, photo, as the two clash over his handling of the financial crisis sweeping Asia. Mr. Anwar is arrested and convicted on sodomy charges, which he denied.Photo: Vincent Thian/Associated Press

Dr. Mahathir steps down after 22 years in power.Photo: Jimin Lai/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Anwar is freed after his conviction on sodomy charges is overturned.Photo: Teh Eng Koon/Associated Press

Najib Razak becomes prime minister and establishes a new state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB.Photo: Lai Seng Sin/Associated Press

Mr. Najib wins re-election and forms government despite losing popular vote to Mr. Anwar’s opposition alliance.Photo: Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Mr. Anwar is jailed for a second time on sodomy charges, which he again denies.Photo: Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal reports that nearly $700 million from 1MDB made its way into Mr. Najib’s personal accounts. Mr. Najib denies any wrongdoing.Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg News

Dr. Mahathir quits ruling UMNO party in protest at Mr. Najib’s handling of 1MDB.Photo: Joshua Paul/Associated Press

Dr. Mahathir emerges as head of new opposition alliance at the age of 92 and pledges to pardon Mr. Anwar and install him as prime minister if he wins elections on May 9.Photo: Daniel Chan/Associated Press

The campaign is raising questions about the strength of democracy in a country that has taken a more authoritarian turn and, like neighbors in Southeast Asia, has been building closer ties to China, said James Chin, head of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia.

Political fractures have deepened in the resource-rich nation, with the government doubling down on its core support among the majority ethnic-Malay Muslim population that dominate rural areas while the opposition courts a wealthier, more multiracial following in the cities.

Dr. Mahathir is attempting to defeat his former protégé, Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom he accuses of skimming money from a scandal-dogged state investment fund, 1Malaysia Development Bhd, or 1MDB.

U.S. authorities allege that at least $4.5 billion was misappropriated between 2009 and 2015. U.S. authorities allege in civil lawsuits that nearly $700 million flowed from 1MDB into the personal accounts of “Malaysian Official 1,” a reference to Mr. Najib, people familiar with the matter say.

1MDB and Mr. Najib have denied wrongdoing and said they would cooperate with any lawful international investigation. Multiple Malaysian investigations in Malaysia into 1MDB closed without finding wrongdoing.

Related

Some supporters of the current leadership said Dr. Mahathir is motivated by wanting to place one of his sons in power after he was passed over by the dominant party in the ruling coalition, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, something they both deny.

As opposition torchbearer, Dr. Mahathir has pledged instead to hand power to Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy whom he had arrested for sodomy two decades ago and who is currently in prison on another disputed sodomy conviction.

Dr. Mahathir complained that the Election Commission, which reports to the prime minister’s office, was disqualifying more opposition politicians than pro-government politicians. In one case, Tian Chua, a vice president of the People’s Justice Party, part of the opposition coalition, was barred from defending his seat because a court earlier this year ordered him to pay a 2,000 ringgit fine, or just over $500, for insulting a policeman—below the limit that would prohibit him from seeking public office.

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@wsj.com

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