Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition widened its lead in vote counting in an election that will determine whether it can fend off a resurgent opposition and extend its 55-year hold on power.
Just after midnight, Najib’s Barisan Nasional had won 88 seats with Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party opposition alliance taking 39 among the 222 up for grabs, according to the Election Commission. A total of 112 is needed for a majority.
Najib has pushed Malaysia’s 29 million people to choose him for stability as his opponents sought to remove a government that has ruled the country since it gained independence from Britain. A disputed outcome risks uncertainty that analysts have warned could prompt investors to sell stocks and the currency in Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy.
“Despite all the complaints, the Election Commission is satisfied with the voting process today,” Abdul Aziz, chairman of the organization, told reporters today in Putrajaya, outside of Kuala Lumpur. Voter turnout was about 70 percent, he told reporters, which would be among the lowest ever.
The opposition People’s Alliance said it had retained control of Penang state, Bernama reported, citing Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng. In addition to the federal election, political parties are vying to control 12 of Malaysia’s 13 state governments.
Anwar held the Penang seat he won in a 2008 by-election, according to Election Commission data. His wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, had won the seat three times while he was ineligible for office due to convictions for having illegal sex with a man and interfering with police inquiries. The sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.
Both sides sought to manage expectations as the first votes were counted. Anwar wrote in a Twitter post that the opposition had won and urged the ruling coalition not to “hijack” the election, which the government rebutted with a statement calling for everyone to wait for the official results.
Monitoring groups including Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, known as Bersih, said an “improvement in the conduct of the election” despite a number of “major issues,” according to their preliminary report. These included the use of phantom voters, stained ballot papers, indelible ink that could be washed off and the arrest of seven poll monitors.
Anwar’s party today raised similar concerns, saying in statements that indelible ink could easily be removed, pencils were used to mark ballots in some areas and its observers were asked to leave one polling station.
Barisan Nasional, led by Najib’s United Malays Nasional Organisation, now holds 135 parliamentary seats, while the opposition has 75 after several defections to become independents since the last election. The ruling coalition’s victory in 2008 mostly came from three states -- Sabah, Sarawak and Johor -- where it won 79 of 82 seats.
A report released two days ago by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research indicated a close finish. Anwar’s group could win 89 seats and Najib’s coalition could take 85, with two going to smaller parties and 46 too close to call, Merdeka said on May 3. Either side needs 112 seats to command a majority in the 222-member parliament.
Merdeka also said Najib’s popularity rating stood at 61 percent, down from 64 percent in March. Najib expects Barisan Nasional to win between 140 and 155 seats in parliament, the Star reported yesterday, citing the prime minister.
Najib led his coalition into an election for the first time since taking over as prime minister four years ago from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who stepped down after the coalition lost a third of its seats in 2008. After inheriting a country in recession, the 59-year-old has overseen 13 straight quarters of economic growth above four percent.
Anwar’s ideologically disparate coalition includes a free markets secular party of mostly ethnic Chinese and another whose members advocate Islamic criminal punishments including stoning. The group has united around a platform aimed at eliminating graft and ending racial preferences for ethnic Malays.
Malaysia’s electoral rolls have risen to 13.3 million, a 22 percent jump from the last vote, Election Commission data show. Voters aged 21 to 29 make up 19 percent of the electorate, compared with 14 percent in 2008.
Ethnic Malays make up about half of the population, while Chinese make up roughly a quarter and the rest are mostly ethnic Indians or indigenous groups.
Malaysia’s benchmark stock index, the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index, fell 1.1 percent on May 3, its biggest loss since Feb. 6. The ringgit strengthened 0.6 percent, the most since April 9, to 3.0335 per dollar as volatility rose to a 10-month high ahead of the poll.