KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s largest state went to the polls on Saturday in an election that poses a test for a ruling coalition deeply shaken by allegations of massive corruption linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) is expected to comfortably retain its firm control of Sarawak, one of the country’s least-developed states.
But the vote—Sarawak holds state-assembly polls out of synch with the rest of Malaysia—is being closely watched for clues that Najib’s graft scandal has eroded BN support with general elections looming by mid-2018.
“In urban areas the opposition has used Najib as a campaign issue. It may cause some problems for BN; Najib may be a liability,” said Faisal Hazis, a senior fellow at the National University of Malaysia.
Najib led the BN—in power since independence in 1957—to its worst-ever showing in 2013 national elections as the opposition capitalized on voter concerns over the economy, corruption and alleged government repression.
It now faces allegations that billions of dollars were plundered from a debt-stricken state-owned investment fund Najib founded in 2009.
The allegations, which burst forth last year, include the revelation that Najib received at least $681 million in deposits to his personal bank accounts in 2013.
Najib and the state company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), steadfastly deny that the money he received was syphoned from 1MDB, but he has sparked anger by shutting down investigations and sidelining critics.
BN-allied parties hold 55 seats in Sarawak’s state assembly, to 15 for the opposition and one independent.
Allegations of electoral abuses have marred the polls, including a redistricting exercise that creates 10 new seats.
Critics have labeled it gerrymandering that benefits the ruling coalition.
Najib, meanwhile, has lavished spending on Sarawak in recent weeks, drawing accusations of vote buying.
The state government also has blocked a string of opposition politicians and activists from entering Sarawak for campaigning, utilizing entry controls it secured when it joined Malaysia in the 1960s.