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Malaysia Arson, Intimidation Cases Mount as Polls Draws Near

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April 29 (Bloomberg) -- More than 2,000 cases of arson, fighting and other election-related crimes have been recorded by police since Malaysia’s parliament was dissolved for polls that will determine whether Najib Razak’s government can extend its five-decade grip on power.

“The violence is much more than previous elections,” Irene Fernandez, co-chairwoman of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections’ code of conduct committee, said by phone. “The increased tension is being driven by the fear of racial riots” and broader implementation of Islamic law that’s being created by the media among non-Muslims, she said.

Campaign booths and motorbikes were burned and flags and billboards torn down as police received reports of 315 incidents yesterday alone, Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf, assistant commissioner of police, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur today. In southern Johor state, bordering Singapore, one political supporter was allegedly choked by five men, he said.

Prime Minister Najib’s government is facing its fiercest challenge to date, after retaining power five years ago by its narrowest margin since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. The markets have priced in Barisan Nasional retaining power in the May 5 vote with a simple majority, though there is a growing risk of a hung parliament or the opposition gaining control, RHB Capital Bhd. said in an April 1 report.

Stocks Rally

“By far, the challenge put up by the opposition is the strongest ever faced by the federal government,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said by phone. “That is why the campaign fever is getting to where it is now. Everyone is feeling that.”

The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index closed last week at a record after rallying 8.9 percent over the past 12 months. The stocks benchmark was little changed at the 12:30 p.m. trading break today. The ringgit has rebounded 1.9 percent against the dollar since Najib dissolved parliament on April 3 for polls and is now the third-best performing major Asian currency this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Race riots between ethnic Malays and Chinese left hundreds dead in the wake of the 1969 vote when the United Malays Nasional Organisation-led coalition government lost its two-thirds majority in parliament for the first time.

Najib, 59, was a teenager during that unrest. His father Abdul Razak Hussein became prime minister the following year and responded with a program to reduce Chinese dominance in business by giving preferential treatment to Malays and indigenous people, collectively known as Bumiputeras.

Islamic Law

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister under Mahathir Mohamad, has pledged to roll back those racial preferences if he takes power, while Najib is pledging to make them more merit-based.

Anwar, 65, leads an ideologically disparate coalition that includes one party with mostly ethnic Chinese and another whose members support the wider implementation of Islamic law, or hudud, which includes stoning to death and amputation of limbs for certain crimes.

Lim Guan Eng, secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party which opposes hudud, received a threatening text message last week saying his wife and children would be killed if he remained chief minister of Penang, the Star reported yesterday, citing the state’s Police Assistant Commander Roslee Chik.

Authorities said they were investigating three attacks on Barisan Nasional campaign offices last week, including a small explosion at an event attended by about 3,000 Najib supporters.

‘Under Control’

“The candidates have to control the situation,” police spokesman Ramli said today. “If candidates are not serious, their supporters will also be the same. The situation in the country is not alarming and in fact it’s under control.”

As of yesterday, 2,035 complaints had been lodged and 65 people arrested, he said. Both Najib and Anwar have condemned the violence.

The opposition won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, including Penang, in the 2008 vote, when the government lost two-thirds control in Parliament for only a second time, prompting Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to step down as prime minister and hand over the reins to his deputy Najib. The government later regained control of Perak state following defections.

An opposition People’s Alliance win could spell “catastrophic ruin” for Malaysia and the stock market and ringgit would suffer a “sharp decline,” Najib said in an April 17 interview, highlighting his track-record of boosting investment and economic growth since becoming leader in 2009.

Anwar, who has pledged to fight cronyism and monopolies, responded with a statement describing the prime minister’s comments as a “desperate and irresponsible act” designed to “strike fear” in the financial community.

To contact the reporters on this story: Barry Porter in Kuala Lumpur at bporter10@bloomberg.net; Manirajan Ramasamy in Kuala Lumpur at rmanirajan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stanley James at sjames8@bloomberg.net; Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net