May 2, 2018 / 6:42 PM / 21 days ago

Malaysia's Mahathir stirs 1MDB debate among rural voters ahead of election

* Opposition seeks to unseat PM Najib

* Palm planters have been solid UMNO backers

* Many rural voters appear unmoved by 1MDB details

* Mahathir says scandal affects all Malaysians

By Praveen Menon and Joseph Sipalan

BUKIT GOH, Malaysia, May 3 (Reuters) - Just days ahead of an election, opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad worked a crowd of palm planters in Malaysia’s rural heartland to stir up debate about a financial scandal, hoping to shift their loyalty away from Prime Minister Najib Razak.

At 92, former premier Mahathir is leading an opposition alliance united in the goal of unseating Najib, who it blames for rising living costs and billions of dollars allegedly lost due to graft at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Hundreds of thousands of palm planters, the majority ethnic Malays, have been a rock-solid vote bank for the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO)-led ruling party and have backed Najib despite the scandals and accusations of mismanagement.

But Malay loyalty to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for six decades has been tested by a steady flow of stories over the past three years about 1MDB, and by reports that nearly $700 million from the fund ended in Najib’s personal bank account.

Speaking about 1MDB to a group of voters on Wednesday in a Felda settlement in Bukit Goh, Pahang, Najib’s home state, Mahathir said the prime minister believed “cash is king”.

“When elections come he offers cash and promises ... promises to give more if he wins,” Mahathir said at the settlement of state-owned palm oil agency Felda.

“I think, let’s make him lose,” he said to the cheers of a small but enthusiastic crowd.

Najib, who chaired 1MDB’s advisory board, has consistently denied any wrongdoing over the billions of dollars lost by the fund, but a Department of Justice investigation into 1MDB in the United States has kept the scandal on the frontburner.

To cement his authority and protect himself, Najib needs to lead UMNO to a convincing victory in the May 9 general election.

The opposition bloc is making gains and will likely win the popular vote, but Najib is still expected to retain power, according to a survey by pollster Merdeka Center.

Mahathir and other opposition leaders are making a push to explain the alleged graft and money laundering at 1MDB to rural Malay voters, who will undoubtedly decide the outcome of the polls.

The issue, however, has largely failed to resonate among rural Malaysians, many of whom appear indifferent to the complex money transactions and legalities involved in the case. Analysts believe rural Malaysians will vote over issues like rising costs and unemployment.

Mahathir told the group that the scandal affects all Malaysians.

“1MDB had a starting capital of 1 million ringgit, and then he went and borrowed 42 billion ringgit. Imagine that, you only have a starting capital of 1 million ringgit and you can borrow 42 billion ringgit,” Mahathir told the planters at the event.

He asked them to go out and vote to ensure the opposition wins by the tens of thousands.

Mohd Ashraf Mustaqim Badrul Munir, an opposition party candidate from the area, said opinion was starting to shift among local Felda settlers. “It’s going to be a battle, but I can say that this is no longer a fortress for UMNO,” he said. (Reporting by Praveen Menon and Joseph Sialan,; Editing by William Maclean)

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