Malaysian voters ready to deliver verdict

KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysian politicians made their final campaign push as some opinion polls showed the government and the opposition running neck-and-neck ahead of Sunday's general election.

  • Published: 4/05/2013 at 04:09 PM
  • Newspaper section: topstories

A survey by the Merdeka Center predicted Prime Minister Najib Razak's Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition could win 85 parliamentary seats, while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance) led by Anwar Ibrahim would take 89 seats. It said 46 seats were too close to call while two would go to smaller parties.

The BN now holds 135 seats in the 222-member Parliament, while the PR has 75 seats after some lawmakers left in recent years to become independents.

Prime Minister Najib Razak waves a booklet with his party's manifesto at a rally in Kuala Lumpur. (AP Photo)

Concerns about the fairness of Sunday's polling have mounted in recent days, with the opposition beginning to claim that the only way the government can win is through fraud.

If the opposition wins, it would be a remarkable comeback for Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was fired in 1998 and subsequently jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that he claims were fabricated by his political enemies.

He was released from jail in 2004 and now leads the biggest threat to the BN, which has led the country ever since independence from Britain in 1957.

"They are in a dead heat. Both are enjoying equally strong support. It will be a very tight contest," said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Center.

Anwar's alliance surged to political prominence in the 2008 elections when it won more than a third of the seats in the federal parliament and gained control of four of the country's 12 states. It was the biggest blow for the National Front since independence and was spurred by discontent about corruption and racial and religious discrimination.

The Merdeka Center poll, which questioned 1,600 people between April 28 and May 2, showed 42% agreed the opposition should be given a chance to govern while 41% supported the BN.

Four percent of voters refused to respond while 13% were undecided, it said. The poll's results have a margin of error of 2.45%.

About 13.3 million Malaysian are eligible to vote to fill 222 parliamentary seats and elect lawmakers for 12 state legislatures on Sunday. A fifth of the voters will be voting for the first time.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim joins villagers at a mosque for Friday prayers in Ulu Melaka on the island of Langkawi. (AFP Photo)

Many of Malaysia's younger voters obtain most of their news from the country's lively internet news sites, which often are the opposition's only avenue for communicating with people.

Malaysia's mainstream media outlets are almost all controlled by the government or its business allies, and coverage of the opposition is almost non-existent.

Ibrahim Suffian said the Merdeka survey showed that many people aged below 40, who account for 52% of voters and have greater access to the internet, backed the opposition while the BN is more appealing to the older generation in rural areas.

He said the survey indicated a split among Malays, who make up 60% of Malaysia's 29 million people and traditionally support Najib's ruling Malay party that heads the BN.

The government said the survey showed Najib's approval rating at 61% while 58% of voters agreed the country was on the right track.

A statement by the Prime Minister's Office said the survey excluded voters in its stronghold Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo, which if included, "would tilt the poll even more in favour" of the BN.

Najib, 59, who is seeking his first mandate at the polls since becoming prime minister in 2009, has taken on the reform mantle to counter the opposition.

He has embarked on a series of economic and government transformation efforts to revamp his coalition's image, including abolishing security laws widely considered repressive, wooing investment from abroad and bolstering public welfare, including cash handouts for civil servants and the poor.

He has pointed to the BN's stewardship that turned Malaysia from an agricultural backwater into a modern, stable nation.

Najib reiterated on Friday that the BN had a "good chance" of regaining its two-thirds majority in Parliament.

Anwar also said he was confident of winning because of rising support among younger voters.

"People have enough of this semi-authoritarian rule, of complete [government] control of the media, of strong arrogance, of power and endemic corruption," Anwar told the Associated Press in an interview this week.

Anwar and a polling watchdog have voiced concerns that the results could be marred by fraud.

Complains have been made that indelible ink, which will be used for the first time to prevent multiple voting, could be washed off voters' fingers.

The opposition has also slammed the BN for chartering flights to bring tens of thousands of dubious "voters" to cast ballot in key areas. The government said the flights were part of efforts to bring voters back home to vote.

The election watchdog Bersih urged Malaysians to exercise their vote as it warned the elections could "be stolen from the people with a series of fraudulent moves on the eve of polling day".

Sunday's vote is "going to be the closest that we’ve ever seen", said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, a research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

"Given how close the margins would be, both sides will try to win over individuals, if not whole smaller parties."

A disputed outcome threatens instability that analysts have warned could prompt investors to sell stocks and the currency in Southeast Asia's third-biggest economy.

"I know we may not have always lived up to your expectations," Najib wrote in a commentary on Friday in the Malaysian Insider, released by his office. "But our policies are tested, our ideas are strong, and our vision is clear."

Najib expects the BN to win between 140 and 155 seats in parliament, The Star reported.

Anwar’s ideologically disparate coalition includes a free markets secular party of mostly ethnic Chinese and another whose members advocate Islamic shariah law. The group has united around a platform aimed at eliminating graft, cutting living costs and ending racial preferences for ethnic Malays.

"There is a momentum for change," said Rafizi Ramli, strategic director of Anwar's People’s Justice Party. "A lot of the economic problems have not been able to be solved by the ruling government."

Massive protests are likely if the results show a big BN margin, said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

"Everybody expects a very tight election now," he said. "What’s unique about this election is that it is the first time since independence that there is even a possibility of Barisan Nasional actually losing."

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