x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Malaysian coalition faces first fall from power

Polls tip opposition to overhaul National Front in election on Sunday.

The Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak greets supporters at a campaign event in Sepang. Ahmad Yusni / EPA
The Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak greets supporters at a campaign event in Sepang. Ahmad Yusni / EPA

KUALA LUMPUR // Malaysia's ruling coalition faces the prospect tomorrow of losing power for the first time since independence in 1957 in a fiercely fought election that polls yesterday suggested was too close to call.

Analysts say the best the National Front coalition government could manage would be a repeat of the previous election in 2008 - its worst result in history in which it lost the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution, which it has done more than 600 times.

Poll results released yesterday by the Merdeka Centre showed the opposition looking likely to win at least 89 of parliament's 222 seats, compared with 85 for prime minister Najib Razak's ruling coalition.

The country is a sea of colour with party flags lining major roads and strung from homes and offices. The government has launched a blitz of taxpayer-funded feel-good advertisements highlighting its handouts to the poor.

A bad performance could trigger an internal challenge against Mr Najib, who ousted the sitting prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, in the fallout from the 2008 electoral disaster.

"Najib has to perform better than 2008; if the result is worse, there could be internal challenges against his rule," said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in neighbouring Singapore.

Malaysia's politics are based on race and the country and parties are divided into Malays - who are automatically Muslim under the constitution - Chinese, Indians and others.

Mr Najib's father introduced controversial affirmative-action policies that favoured the recruitment of majority ethnic Malays over Chinese and other groups, particularly in the defence force, nursing and other government services - policies the opposition has pledged to wipe out.

A poll by the Universiti Malaya several days ago suggested that the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was well ahead of Mr Najib as the elctorate's preferred prime minister.

The country has been in de facto election mode for two years and the uncertainty has affected foreign investment and caused the local stock index to be the worst performer in South East Asia, economists and brokers said.

The government and Mr Najib are dogged by allegations of corruption; the opposition by disunity among its three parties.

Both coalitions' manifestos are largely similar - focusing on stamping out corruption, reducing living costs and raising living standards. The opposition coalition's All Malaysia Islamic Party (PAS) wants to introduce hudud, Sharia's penal code, but the alliance's position on this is unclear.

The government, led by Mr Najib's United Malays National Organisation (Umno), is warning voters not to choose change for the sake of change.

"We are capable of making major changes if the people want them, and there is no need for the government to be replaced by a new one," Mr Najib said when he announced the dissolution of parliament a few weeks ago.

"Major changes can be implemented with the same government."

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Alliance), led by Mr Anwar, a former Umno deputy prime minister, is campaigning against what it says is a corrupt and inept government.

In a recent interview, Mr Anwar said Pakatan had a very good chance of winning.

"For [Pakatan] it is the best possible chance to offer a viable alternative for democracy and a more responsible government," he said.

In the lead-up to the election, Mr Najib, 59, has announced major government spending - giving cash handouts to the poor, and promising more if he wins, boosting salaries for civil servants, the police and the military, delaying a value-added tax and putting off plans to end government price subsidies.

Critical to his coalition holding on to power is rural Malaysia, where constituencies have fewer voters than in the cities, and in which the Pakatan opposition is more popular.

This includes the states of Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo, a Barisan stronghold that accounts for more than a quarter of parliament's 222 seats. The opposition will have to pick up seats there to have a chance of toppling the government.

Polls have found almost a quarter of registered voters are young and voting in their first election - seen as a boost for the opposition.



* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse