Neck-and-Neck Race as Malaysian Voters Prepare for Polls

Malaysians vote today in an election that will determine whether Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition can fend off a resurgent opposition and extend its 55-year hold on power.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party People’s Alliance is seeking to defeat a government led by Najib’s United Malays Nasional Organisation that has ruled since Malaysia gained independence from Britain. Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Both political groups made final pitches to Malaysia’s 29 million people before the official campaign ended last night, with Najib’s allies pushing for stability and his opponents urging change. A disputed outcome would threaten uncertainty that analysts have warned could prompt investors to sell stocks and the currency in Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy.

“It’s going to be the closest that we’ve ever seen,” Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, research fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said by phone. “Given how close the margins would be, both sides will try to win over individuals, if not whole smaller parties.”

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.

Barisan Nasional 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.

Tight Finish

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 would take 85, with two going to smaller parties and 46 too close to call, the research group said. Either side needs 112 seats to command a majority in the 222-member parliament.

Some 42 percent of voters backed Anwar’s opposition, compared with 41 percent for Najib’s coalition, according to the Merdeka poll of 1,600 people conducted April 28 to May 2 on peninsula Malaysia, which excludes the ruling coalition’s traditional strongholds of Sabah and Sarawak. The poll’s results have a margin of error of 2.45 percent, it said.

Najib Popularity

The survey 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.

He is leading 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 the 2008 election. 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, cutting living costs and ending racial preferences for ethnic Malays.

Anwar last week accused the government of voter fraud and called on citizens to gather evidence. Police are monitoring individuals that may seek to cause trouble during and after the election, Deputy Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said by phone yesterday.

Racism, Extremism

Last night, opposition supporters chanted “May 5, Change Government” and “Long Live Democracy” at a gathering in Selangor state’s Kelana Jaya stadium.

“Most important to me is the hope tomorrow will mark the end of racism and extremism and we will march forward in unity as true Malaysians,” Yeo Bee Yin, an opposition candidate for the Selangor state legislature, told the rally. “The Malay, the Chinese and the Indians -- we are going to unite and vote out the Barisan Nasional government.”

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.

One in five ethnic Chinese said they feel the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 58 percent in total, the Merdeka poll showed. Chinese voters are growing intolerant of affirmative-action programs for Malays that restrict access to universities and government contracts.

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.

Seeking Stability

Frankie Gan, a candidate for Najib’s coalition, yesterday went door-to-door in a Chinese-majority area of Kuala Lumpur with low-cost housing to woo voters.

Some residents, like 63-year-old Siti Zaleha Ahmad, saw no reason to change the government and risk losing cash handouts of 500 ringgit ($165). Others like Marvin Yong, 30, are backing the opposition on concerns that new housing developments will force them to move.

Gan, while acknowledging many Chinese voters want a change in government, said he’s confident of victory.

“Malaysians want stability,” he said. “Now is not the right time to change.”