Campaigning Kick Offs in Malaysia’s ‘Closest Ever’ Election

Campaigning in Malaysia’s general election got underway today with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition battling to extend its 55-year rule and the opposition pledging to stamp out graft and cut living costs.

“This is one of the closest elections ever in Malaysia’s history,” Albert Leung, a Hong Kong-based fixed-income strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said by phone.

Candidates submitted nomination papers in their home constituencies this morning for the May 5 poll, with Najib returning to Pekan, Pahang, for a campaign march. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is running in Penang, one of five states seized from the government in the last election in 2008.

Najib, facing the electorate for the first time as leader after taking over mid-term four years ago, wants his own mandate to complete government and economic transformation programs started three years ago. Private investment has since tripled, to 139.5 billion ringgit ($46 billion) last year, according to government data.

“The opposition has managed to get its act together and since 2008 has become a formidable rival,” Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in an interview yesterday. “Both coalitions are business-friendly and their battle is about internal governance such as corruption, transparency and cronyism.”

Flags, Banners

Supporters of both camps have erected thousands of flags and banners around the country in preparation for the campaign. More than 570 candidates are vying for 222 parliamentary seats, the Star reported today, citing the Election Commission. Some politicians chose to run as independents after being dropped or snubbed by their own parties.

Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition is fielding one third new candidates, with veteran politicians including former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and former Trade Minister Rafidah Aziz stepping aside to make way for new talent. Both Najib and Anwar have repeatedly said they’re “cautiously optimistic” of winning.

Abdullah stepped down in 2009 to take responsibility for leading Barisan Nasional to its narrowest election victory in five decades in the last election. The government lost control of five out of 13 state assemblies in that vote, before later recovering Perak following defections.

Brokerages from RHB Investment Bank Bhd. to Citigroup Inc. have said they expect a closer result this time.

Energy Minister Peter Chin, Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen, former ministers Syed Hamid Albar, Chua Soi Lek, Samy Vellu and Shahrizat Abdul Jalil are among those not contesting.

‘New Talent’

“Some people have to make way otherwise we cannot reinvigorate the party with young and new faces,” said Najib, 59, in an April 17 interview in Putrajaya, outside of Kuala Lumpur. “I believe by introducing well-qualified people as MPs and state assemblymen, we’ll have a good reservoir of new talent from which we can choose to form the next government.”

Anwar, 65, leads an ideologically disparate opposition that includes one party with mostly ethnic Chinese and another whose members support the wider implementation of Islamic law.

Both Barisan Nasional and the opposition have made fighting corruption and reducing living costs central to their respective election manifestos. While Najib’s coalition has highlighted its experience in government and attracting investment, Anwar’s alliance is demanding electoral reform and an end to cronyism and monopolies.

Malaysia moved to 54th from 60th place among 176 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, though it was ranked last for bribery among 30 countries surveyed.

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