Dr Mahathir and his former foe Mr Anwar have joined up in a bid to oust Mr Najib, with an election victory by the allied parties potentially paving the way for the incarcerated Anwar to eventually return and take over as prime minister.
If the opposition wins, it would immediately start the process to obtain a royal pardon for Mr Anwar so that he can be eligible to become prime minister.
Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Mr Anwar’s wife, was also announced as Pakatan Harapan’s choice for deputy prime minister at the coalition’s annual convention.
Dr Mahathir, who during his 22-year tenure as prime minister earned a reputation of being a no-nonsense authoritarian with little time for dissenters promoting liberal values, stands to become the world’s oldest leader if the opposition wins, pushing Queen Elizabeth II into second place.
The opposition, however, looks unlikely to unseat the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, according to a survey conducted by independent polling firm Merdeka Center in December.
The survey showed that although BN’s share of the popular vote will shrink further, it can potentially regain a two-thirds majority in parliament, The Malaysian Insight said.
Merdeka Centre’s director Ibrahim Suffian said the Mahathir-led group was at a disadvantage due to a split in the opposition and the redrawing of electoral boundaries that critics say favour the ruling government.
The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which was part of the opposition group in 2013, is no longer part of the pact.
“We are highly sceptical of the opposition’s prospects if they continue to be split as things are now,” Mr Ibrahim said.
Malaysia’s political landscape has been shaped for nearly two decades by a bitter feud between Mr Anwar and Dr Mahathir.
Anwar was once a protege of Dr Mahathir, and the rising star of Malaysian politics, but they had a falling out in the late 1990s. Mr Anwar was jailed on charges of sodomy and graft, after being sacked as the deputy prime minister. He denied the charges, dismissing them as politically motivated.
Mr Anwar later led an opposition alliance to stunning electoral gains in 2013. Mr Najib’s coalition lost the popular vote in that election, but won a majority of the seats in parliament.
Mr Anwar was convicted and jailed again in 2013 for sodomy, a charge he says is an attempt to end his career. The sodomy conviction disqualifies Anwar from political office and from contesting the next election. A royal pardon, however, would let him contest.
Opposition to Mr Najib has brought Mr Anwar and Dr Mahathir back together.
Mr Najib has been embroiled in a corruption scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). In civil lawsuits, the US Justice Department has alleged that about $4.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB.
The fund has denied any wrongdoing and Mr Najib, who founded 1MDB, has denied all allegations of corruption against him and was cleared of wrongdoing by Malaysia’s attorney-general.
Mr Najib is also known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress towards democracy.
In September 2017, Donald Trump caused controversy by inviting Mr Najib to the White House despite the investigation.
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