Malaysians are voting to elect the county’s seventh prime minister in a fiercely contested race between scandal-hit incumbent Prime Minister Najib Razak and his former mentor Mahathir Mohamad.
Polls opened at 8:00 a.m. (0000 GMT) across the country on Wednesday, the day that has been declared bank holiday.
More than 14.4 million Malaysians are eligible to cast their vote until 5:00 p.m. (0900 GMT). Results are expected to be announced late Wednesday or in the early hours of Thursday.
The vote will see Najib facing off against 92-year-old Mahathir, who had been an integral part of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the country’s prime minister for 22 years, from 1981 to 2003.
Mahathir, however, left the coalition in 2016, saying he was “embarrassed” to be associated with a party “that is seen as supporting corruption.”
He later set up his own political party Parti Pribumi Bersatu, which joined the opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan.
In the last election in 2013, the opposition made unprecedented gains by winning the popular vote, but finally failed to win enough seats to form a government.
Under the Malaysian system, a simple majority of lawmakers in parliament is required for victory, rather than the popular vote.
It is presumed that Najib’s ruling coalition will win due to the electoral system. Some experts, however, say his government will lose the popular vote for the second consecutive election.
According to Malaysia’s electoral reform organization Bersih, Najib will be able to win the election with only 16.5 percent of the popular vote.
But a recent survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center said Mahathir’s coalition was likely to win 43.7 percent of the popular vote, while Najib’s is expected to win 40.3 percent. This would be the first time in more than six decades that an opposition wins power in Malaysia. The BN coalition has been ruling since the country’s independence in 1957.
Najib, 64, who is seeking a third term in office is under pressure over a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal and the cost of living across the country.
He is accused of taking $681 million from a state investment fund, 1Malaysian Development Berhad, into his personal bank account. He has denied all allegations.
The attorney-general’s office also cleared the prime minister in January, saying the money was a personal donation from the Saudi royal family.
The previous attorney-general, who was leading the investigation, was fired last year.
The fund is still being investigated by several countries as the prime minister is accused of stifling Malaysian investigations by removing key officials.