KUALA LUMPUR: Campaigning for Malaysia's general election started officially on Saturday, pitting Prime Minister Najib Razak against his former mentor, Mahathir Mohamad, in a contest marred by claims of sabotage and a rigged electoral system.
Najib leads his undefeated ruling coalition into arguably its toughest election since independence from Britain in 1957. He is grappling with a multi-billion-dollar scandal at the state investment fund, public anger over living costs and an unprecedented challenge by the 92-year-old Mahathir.
Mahathir, returning to politics after retiring 15 years ago, will stand in the holiday island of Langkawi for the May 9 elections.
Prime minister for 22 years before stepping down in 2003, Mahathir returned to challenge Najib after the scandal at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
The fund is being investigated for money-laundering and graft in at least six countries, including the United States, Singapore and Switzerland. Najib denies any wrongdoing in connection with losses at the fund, and the investigations in Malaysia have been cursory at best.
The prime minister has also defended his government's economic record despite public anger over rising prices, blamed on the goods and services tax he introduced in 2015. He has tried to mollify voters with a series of handouts in the recent budget.
Najib will contest from his home state of Pahang. His Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance and the opposition are vying for 222 parliamentary and 505 state seats.
Mahathir told reporters on Friday he suspected sabotage of a private plane that was to fly him from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi after the pilot discovered some damage just before take-off.
"I have warned before that there will be attempts to stop candidates from making it to the nomination centre, but I didn't think it would happen to me," he said at a news conference in Langkawi.
The government ordered an immediate investigation into the claim. Mahathir did not make a police complaint.
The opposition and critics say they are also faced with an electoral system that favours the BN coalition, compounded by a redrawing of electoral boundaries that was fast-tracked through parliament in March.
Najib's government and the Election Commission have denied the accusations.
The commission on Saturday rejected the nominations of at least two opposition candidates. Senior People's Justice Party leader Tian Chua was rejected due to a previous conviction, while another candidate's documents were incomplete, Malaysian media reported.
Other claims, such as discrepancies in the electoral roll, have also been reported.
The commission also rejected a request this week by the national human rights body to monitor the election, claiming they had already appointed foreign observers and independent groups.
International observers from Indonesia, Thailand, the Maldives, East Timor, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan will monitor the voting.
The decision to set the polling day on a Wednesday was also seen as discouraging many people from returning to their home constituencies from big cities or abroad to vote. However, outraged Malaysians took to social media to offer funding and other services to help people return home to vote.
A low voter turnout is expected to allow Najib's coalition to retain power.