KUALA LUMPUR • A campaign by young Malaysians to cast protest votes is picking up steam as the South-east Asian country braces itself for a potentially acrimonious national election between two candidates that must be held by August.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak faces a challenge from his one-time mentor and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who turned on Datuk Seri Najib over a multibillion-dollar scandal involving a state fund and now leads the opposition campaign to oust his coalition.
Mr Najib denies wrongdoing.
But young people pushing the #UndiRosak - or spoil your vote - campaign on social media say they refuse to pick between Tun Dr Mahathir, 92, and Mr Najib, 64, both of whom they blame for building the current political system.
The plan: Cast your votes, but mark your ballots wrongly to make sure no political party benefits.
"There is a democratic deficit... We want to leave the BN-PH binary because, honestly, it's getting tiring," said social activist Maryam Lee, 25, using the abbreviations for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan.
Support for a boycott is strongest among the young voters whom the opposition needs to challenge Mr Najib.
The ruling coalition is widely expected to win the polls.
Dr Mahathir has tried to reinvent his image on social media, but his reputation as an iron-fisted dictator over 22 years in charge continues to divide opinion.
"The opposition is not entitled to our votes just because BN sucks. You have to work for my vote," said Ms Lee on Thursday at a forum to debate the merits of the movement.
The #UndiRosak campaign has gained momentum in the weeks after the opposition alliance named Dr Mahathir as its candidate for prime minister earlier this month.
More than 1,500 Twitter users have discussed the topic over the past two weeks, according to a survey by social media research firm Politweet. #UndiRosak is also the second-highest trending Twitter topic in Malaysia.
While the #UndiRosak campaign is small - Ms Lee thinks it will influence only 1 per cent of the 14.6 million registered voters - it has jolted the opposition.
Dr Mahathir this week said it was "shallow-minded" for the young people to not cast their vote. "We need to change this country. If we didn't need to, I wouldn't bother getting into this because I'm 92, and I'm going to turn 93," he said at a media briefing on Tuesday.
In the 2013 national polls, 2.6 million new voters helped generate a record turnout of over 84 per cent and contributed to Mr Najib's ruling coalition losing the popular vote.
But between 2013 and last year, the number of new voters went down to two million, according to estimates by independent polling firm Merdeka Centre. Another two million have yet to register.
Mr Najib's Umno party said that the boycott proved only that Dr Mahathir and the opposition were not popular.
"A lot of people are disillusioned. Those who do not come out to vote are not BN supporters," Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a member of Umno's powerful supreme council, told Bernama news agency. "BN supporters still want us to remain as the government, so they will go out to cast their votes."