KUALA LUMPUR: Flag-waving supporters marched in Malaysia Saturday (Apr 28) as candidates registered to run in hard-fought elections next month, with campaigning set to officially start later in the day.
Prime Minister Najib Razak is facing a tough fight to hang on to power due to a scandal surrounding sovereign wealth fund 1MDB and a challenge from veteran ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad, 92.
Najib's long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition is nevertheless tipped to win the May 9 poll due to a weakened opposition and alleged vote-rigging, according to his critics.
There was a festive atmosphere around the country Saturday as candidates formally registered to stand in the election, with flag-waving supporters from different parties parading through the streets.
Once the election commission confirmed their candidacies, the 11-day campaign formally got under way, with 222 parliamentary seats up for grabs.
BN will contest all 222 parliamentary seats, the opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan in 191, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) in 158 and there are 24 independent candidates.
Najib, dressed in dark blue traditional Malay dress, registered his candidacy in his constituency of Pekan, in Pahang state, which he has held since 1976.
His supporters gathered and sang the national anthem, while waving blue banners - the colour of the ruling coalition - that read "we choose BN".
"He has developed our country, developed an Islamic nation, race and country," supporter Azizah Abdul Aziz told AFP.
On the holiday island of Langkawi in northwest Malaysia, Mahathir - who was premier for 22 years - arrived at a local government office to register his candidacy, wearing bright red Malay dress and a traditional black cap.
Outside about 5,000 backers of the opposition coalition he is heading, Pact of Hope, waved flags and chanted.
"Mahathir can help reboot this country," supporter Aziah Mohamad Nasir told AFP.
"Prime Minister Najib has destroyed justice, there is no rule of law." Mahathir faces a three-corned tussle in Langkawi as he faces Zubir Ahmad from PAS and Barisan Nasional’s Nawawi Ahmad.
Mahathir has joined forces with the opposition as their prime ministerial candidate due to the 1MDB scandal, in a stunning volte-face which has seen him throw in his lot with parties he crushed while in power.
Billions of dollars were allegedly stolen from 1MDB - which was set up and overseen by Najib - in a campaign of fraud and money-laundering, with American authorities claiming it was used to buy high-end real estate and artwork in the United States.
Najib and the fund deny any wrongdoing, but the controversy has only added to BN's problems after years of falling popularity driven by official corruption, divisive racial politics in the multi-ethnic country and anger at rising living costs.
The 64-year-old leader is under pressure to score an emphatic win after BN lost the popular vote for the first time at the 2013 election.
Najib, who has been premier since 2009, has weathered the 1MDB scandal by sacking critics in government and launching a crackdown that has seen opponents arrested on various charges.
In recent weeks, BN has taken steps that critics liken to gerrymandering - such as redrawing electoral boundaries in a way the opposition says will tilt the race in the government's favour.
Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent polling firm Merdeka Centre, told AFP that BN was likely to win but signalled it could be a tough fight.
"There are a few states where the opposition does have a strong presence, so it makes for some uncertainty," he said.