Malaysian PM plays ethnic card as he gears for elections

AP

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  • United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, inspects a ceremonial guard of honor during the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has rallied for unity in his ruling party, warning ethnic Malays they will be stripped of their special privileges if the opposition wins general elections due next year. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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    A member of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party takes a picture with her cellphone before the opening ceremony of the party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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    United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, wearing red shirt at center left, inspects a ceremonial guard of honor during the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Najib is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

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    United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, third left, Deputy President and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, second left, and Vice President and Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, left, attend the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Najib is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

  • United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, center, inspects a ceremonial guard of honor during the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has rallied for unity in his ruling party, warning ethnic Malays they will be stripped of their special privileges if the opposition wins general elections due next year. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

  • 1

    A member of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party takes a picture with her cellphone before the opening ceremony of the party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

  • 2

    United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, wearing red shirt at center left, inspects a ceremonial guard of honor during the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Najib is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

  • 3

    United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party President and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, third left, Deputy President and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, second left, and Vice President and Defense Minister Hishamuddin Hussein, left, attend the opening ceremony of UMNO party's general assembly in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Najib is expected to rally for unity in the three days annual assembly ahead of the general elections which must be held by August 2018. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) Embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said Thursday it would be a "nightmare" for ethnic Malays if the opposition wins elections next year.

Opening a three-day annual assembly of his United Malays National Organization, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, Najib poked fun at the opposition coalition led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, saying the octogenarian was in the same league as former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

UMNO is the linchpin of Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition but its support has dwindled in the last two elections. It lost the popular vote for the first time to the opposition in 2013.

Despite being plagued by an epic corruption scandal that involved hundreds of millions of dollars passing through his bank accounts, Najib has clung to power and his coalition is likely to win elections due by August.

The opposition coalition was in disarray but has converged under 92-year-old Mahathir after he made a high-profile return to politics in a bid to oust Najib. Mahathir was Asia's longest serving leader for 22 years before stepping down in 2003, and is still influential among ethnic Malay Muslims who account for about 60 percent of Malaysia's 32 million people. Chinese and Indians make up the rest.

"It is odd that there are still people who are willing to be led by someone in his twilight years. Former Zimbabwe President Mugabe, who is the same age as he is, has already been rejected by his own people," Najib said.

He urged UMNO's more than 3 million members to stay loyal and prevent the country from falling into the opposition's hands.

"We are at a monumental crossroad. The fate of the nation is in our hands. The nightmare that will befall us is unthinkable" if the party loses, Najib said, warning that Malays will be stepped on and disparaged in their own land.

Najib has fired critics in his own government, including an attorney-general and deputy prime minister and muzzled the media since the corruption scandal erupted two years ago. The U.S. and several other countries are investigating allegations of cross-border embezzlement and money laundering at 1MDB, a state investment fund set up and previously led by Najib to promote economic development but which accumulated billions in debt.

The U.S. Justice Department says at least $4.5 billion was stolen from 1MDB by associates of Najib, and it is working to seize $1.7 billion taken from the fund to buy assets in the U.S, potentially its largest asset seizure ever.

Its complaint filed with a U.S. District Court says more than $700 million landed in the accounts of "Malaysian Official 1," which it did not name but through descriptions of that official's role in the fund and government, as well as other details, made clear was Najib. Malaysia's attorney-general has said the millions in Najib's accounts were a political donation from the Saudi royal family that was mostly returned. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

Analysts said the 1MDB scandal didn't resonate with rural Malays, who were more irked by rising cost of living. Aided by a stronger economy, Najib recently promised financial handouts to rural folks, cut income tax, abolished tolls on several major highways and boosted infrastructure spending in the 2018 national budget.

"He is the best prime minister of all because he takes care of our welfare," said Aisah Mahidin, who was listening to Najib's speech.

She said there was no proof that Najib took the money and that the U.S. investigation was a move to smear Najib's image.

  

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