Malaysia Opposition, Led by 92-Year-Old, Wins Upset Victory

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Supporters of Mahathir Mohamad, who is poised to lead Malaysia after his opposition coalition claimed victory in the country’s general election, gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday to watch a broadcast of the election results.CreditUlet Ifansasti/Getty Images

By Richard C. Paddock, New York Times

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — In a historic election upset in a country that has been governed by just one coalition for decades, a Malaysian opposition bloc led by the 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad swept to a majority in national parliamentary elections.

Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in government funds, gave an emotional national address on Thursday, saying that he would “accept the verdict of the people.”

But the election’s result has not yet been settled. The country’s king must now rule on who will be the next prime minister, as the loose coalition of opposition parties led by Mr. Mahathir is not officially recognized as a single political entity.

In the end, if Prime Minister Najib is ousted, he may become vulnerable to criminal prosecution. And he still faces a United States Justice Department investigation and efforts to recover $1.7 billion in assets said to be acquired with laundered money.

In a news conference Thursday, Mr. Mahathir called on the king to swear him in as prime minister by 5 p.m. “There is an urgency here. We need to form the government now, today,” he said.

Bernama, the government news agency, reported that the opposition had won 122 seats in Parliament, 10 more than needed to form a new government.

With that apparent victory, Mr. Mahathir, who led the country for 22 years before retiring at 78, would return to power as the world’s oldest elected government leader.

Mahathir Mohamad, center, a former prime minister of Malaysia, became the leader of an opposition coalition, which declared a general election victory on Thursday.CreditJewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It is the first victory by the opposition since Malaysia became independent from Britain in 1957, potentially ending the current governing coalition’s six decades in power. “We have achieved a very substantial majority,” Mr. Mahathir said earlier Thursday.

As prime minister, Mr. Najib used the power of his office to muzzle critics and thwart investigations into the missing money.

“We are not seeking revenge,” Mr. Mahathir said. “What we want to do is restore the rule of law.”

Mr. Mahathir had left Mr. Najib’s party over the financial scandal and joined the opposition to help oust him.

The test of the unity of Mr. Mahathir’s coalition may come if it is allowed form a cabinet. The coalition includes opposition leaders he once jailed when he was prime minister.

Mr. Najib waged a desperate election-eve attempt to gain support, promising this week that if his own coalition won, he would exempt everyone 26 or younger from paying taxes and declare two public holidays next week, just before the start of the holy month of Ramadan.

Mr. Najib’s father and uncle both served as prime minister, and their party, the United Malays National Organization, has always been in charge.

In an urgent bid to oust Mr. Najib, the opposition turned to Mr. Mahathir, who served as prime minister for 22 years and is often credited with transforming majority-Muslim Malaysia into a modern country. But Mr. Mahathir also established the system of centralized power that Mr. Najib has enjoyed for years.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Mahathir apologized for enabling Mr. Najib to become prime minister in 2009.

Malaysians waiting Wednesday at a polling site in the Kampung Baru area of Kuala Lumpur, the capital. Credit Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

“The biggest mistake that I have made in my life is choosing Najib,” he told voters last week.

Mr. Mahathir, who will turn 93 in July, united a fractured opposition and attracted ethnic Malay voters long loyal to the governing party.

Mr. Najib, however, had many political advantages, including a strong party organization, greater access to campaign funds and gerrymandered districts that favor his National Front coalition.

Malaysia also has weak campaign finance laws that allow for a flood of election spending without identifying the source of donations or disclosing how the money is distributed.

Mr. Najib has been embroiled for years in a scandal over billions of dollars that disappeared from a government investment fund that he once headed, 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

The United States Justice Department concluded that $3.5 billion from the Malaysian fund was laundered through financial institutions in the United States and spent on items like expensive real estate, jewelry, paintings and the production of movies, including “The Wolf of Wall Street.”