1. SOUNDBITE (English) Eileen Ng, AP Malaysia Correspondent:
"Nearly 15 million Malaysians will vote in general elections on May 9 that will determine if the National Front coalition can extend its 60-year grip on power. They will choose between Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is seeking a third term in office, or the opposition led by 92-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad. The polls will be a major test of survival for Najib, who has been dogged by a massive corruption scandal at the 1MDB state fund that is being investigated by the United States and several other countries. The fund was set up by Najib but US investigators say his associates stole and laundered 4.5 billion (US) dollars from the fund. Support for the National Front has eroded in the last two elections and Najib must improve the coalition's performance to fend off challenges from within his ruling Malay party. Anger over the 1MDB fiasco led to the return of Mahathir, who was prime minister for 22 years until 2003 and credited with modernising Malaysia. He has galvanised a fractured opposition to oust what he calls "a government of thieves." Mahathir has attracted thousands to his rallies and has pulled support from rural ethnic Malays, who are traditionally government supporters but have been angered by a rising cost of living. Mahathir will be the world's oldest leader if the opposition wins but the odds are stacked against them. New electoral maps that were rushed through parliament last month are skewed in favour of the government and could help the National Front hold on to power. Eileen Ng, Associated Press, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia."
Voters have a stark choice in Malaysia's election on Wednesday: resurrect the country's 92-year-old former authoritarian leader or give a third term to Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose alleged role in the multibillion-dollar ransacking of a state investment fund has battered Malaysia's standing abroad.
Najib's ruling party, in control for six decades, is likely to hold on to power due to an electoral system that gives more weight to rural voters, analysts say, but at the price of reduced legitimacy.
The contest pits Najib, a political blue blood, against his former political mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister for 22 years until 2003 and credited with modernizing Malaysia. Angered by the corruption scandal that engulfed the state investment fund set up and overseen by Najib, Mahathir defected from the ruling coalition's dominant United Malays National Organization party and joined forces with opposition parties who had regarded him as their chief nemesis.
US investigators say 4.5 billion US dollars were stolen from 1MDB, the investment fund, by associates of Najib between 2009 and 2014, including 700 million US dollars that landed in Najib's bank account.
He denies any wrongdoing.
The graft and money laundering scandal, under investigation by several countries including Malaysia's ally the US, as well as the 2015 imposition of a goods and services tax that hit poor Malays hardest, have been foremost in voters' minds.
Yet the perennial race card in Malaysian politics, that an opposition victory would pave the way for ethnic minority Chinese to dominate the country politically, is still a powerful subterranean force.
The ruling National Front lost its two-thirds majority in parliament in 2008 elections and lost the popular vote in 2013, its worst ever result.
That year it won 47 percent of the votes but still secured 60 percent of the seats in parliament due to the electoral system that makes votes in Malay-dominated rural seats, which traditionally support the coalition, more powerful than urban votes.
Tindak, a group that lobbies for electoral reform, estimates one third of voters decide half of the seats.
Analysts say the ruling coalition is likely to keep a parliamentary majority in Wednesday's election even if its share of the vote shrinks again.
If it performs particularly badly, Najib could face challengers from within his own party or the government itself might not survive a full term because minor parties within the coalition could defect.
The opposition has been reinvigorated by Mahathir after fracturing in 2015 when its most charismatic figure, Anwar Ibrahim, was imprisoned on charges of sodomy in a case he and his supporters said was manufactured by the government to crush the opposition.
Anwar, a former prime minister who was sacked by Mahathir in 1998 and then imprisoned for alleged sodomy and corruption after leading protests against his government, helped smooth Mahathir's acceptance by opposition parties by publicly reconciling with him.
Remarkably robust at 92 years old, Mahathir is welcomed rapturously at opposition rallies and provokes roars of laughter as he mocks Najib as a greedy kleptocrat who would try to buy his way into heaven but would be sent to hell.
But the opposition is without an overt attraction for religiously minded voters after an Islamic-based party split from the alliance in 2015, at a time when religious conservatism is gaining ground among Malaysia's Muslims.
And loyalty to the National Front remains deeply rooted in the countryside.