SEKINCHAN, Malaysia: He may be 92 but Malaysia’s ex-strongman Mahathir Mohamad has brushed aside the constraints of age to hit the campaign trail for upcoming polls, as he takes on scandal-plagued premier Najib Razak.
Mahathir was welcomed by cheering voters at a fishing village on Friday, in a late-night stop as he seeks to woo voters crucial to victory in polls that must be called by August.
Such a scene would have been unthinkable until recently — Mahathir was addressing an event organized by an opposition party that fought against his rule during his 22 years in power.
“This time, we have a chance to change the Barisan Nasional (BN) government,” the elderly politician thundered, referring to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, and which he himself once led.
Mahathir was picked as the opposition coalition’s prime ministerial candidate this month, in a political volte-face that shook up a race that long looked like an easy win for the government.
His coalition hopes he will win rural votes, particularly those of the Muslim Malay majority, who have long supported the government in exchange for policies favoring them but have become disillusioned due to the rising cost of living and a financial scandal ensnaring Najib.
“The critical factor in this election would be Malay voters that are disgruntled,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of independent polling firm Merdeka Center, told Agence France-Presse.
Mahathir is himself Malay, and has long championed the Malay cause. The opposition hopes the votes he peels away from the government will complement their traditional support base of people in the cities and minorities, particularly the ethnic Chinese.
Analysts do not expect the opposition to win due to BN’s dominance of the political system, but if the unlikely happens, Mahathir will become the world’s oldest prime minister.
Mahathir stepped down as premier in 2003, but he did not stay away from politics for long.
He came out of retirement to challenge his ex-protege Najib over allegations state fund 1MDB had been plundered, formed a party in 2016 and aligned with the opposition.
The most remarkable aspect of his political rebirth has been a reconciliation with former nemesis Anwar Ibrahim. The pair met for the first time in 18 years in 2016 when Mahathir turned up to show support for Anwar at a court appearance.
Anwar was heir apparent to Mahathir until the premier sacked him in 1998 over political differences, and he was then jailed on sodomy and corruption charges.
The opposition Coalition of Hope had qualms about making Mahathir their candidate for the top job but observers say there was ultimately little choice.
Anwar was the only other figure well-known enough, and he is in jail after being convicted of sodomy again in 2015 in a case his supporters say was politically-motivated.
There is little sign that age is slowing Mahathir down.
He arrived at Friday’s dinner event in the east coast fishing village of Sekinchan at around 10 p.m., smiling broadly as he walked through an applauding crowd.
During his speech, the slight, bespectacled man with white, slicked back hair, repeatedly attacked Najib over allegations huge sums were stolen from 1MDB.
“Since Najib became prime minister, he’s lost billions of ringgit,” Mahathir told the 3,000-strong group at the event organized by the Democratic Action Party, part of the opposition coalition.
Najib and 1MDB deny any wrongdoing.
Mahathir has faced much criticism for his authoritarian rule. Opposition figures were jailed without trial in the 1980s, and he was accused of attacking the judiciary.
But he is also credited with transforming a sleepy Southeast Asian backwater into an economic success story, and his candidacy is appealing to voters longing for better times and angry at rising living costs.
“He is someone who can return the country to how it was before,” said Jamiah Mansor, 64, a Malay housewife who attended Friday’s dinner.
But his candidacy has also proved controversial, with the ruling coalition accusing the opposition of hypocrisy and many furious at the prospect of his return.
“Bringing back Mahathir is a betrayal of (the opposition’s) supporters,” Abdul Rahman Dahlan, minister in the prime minister’s department, told AFP.
His bid for the top job has left many younger voters disillusioned, and a campaign calling for votes to be spoiled has gone viral.
Hafidz Baharom, 35, a former opposition supporter who plans not to vote, told AFP that “the younger generation needs to move up, the older generation has to resign and move from the front lines.”
The opposition are “not even promising hope—they’re promising the lesser of two evils,” he said.