Najib vs Mahathir: Malaysia Hits the Polls

Najib vs Mahathir: Malaysia Hits the Polls
Composite: Reuters / AP / TPG

What you need to know

Malaysia is choosing its next prime minister, the culmination of a fierce campaign between two political veterans.

Excitement is palpable as millions of Malaysians head to the polls to pick their representatives after an intense 11-day campaign period ahead of GE14 – Malaysia's 14th general election.

The exodus started on May 8, as highways heading out of the capital Kuala Lumpur became choked with traffic, and airports overflowed with people trying to catch flights to their hometowns heading one way and those returning from overseas to cast their ballots the other.

Many of those working in Malaysia's larger cities are not registered to vote there, and instead must travel to polling stations in semi-rural areas.

The opposition coalition is banking on high voter turnout to help clinch a slim win for the first time in Malaysian history, and there has been a surge in grassroots initiatives organized via social media to encourage Malaysians to vote, especially given the mid-week polling date.

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Reuters / TPG
People line up to vote during the general election in Alor Setar, Malaysia.

#PulangMengundi (Return to Vote) was one of the first such drives, encouraging Malaysians to get to the polls by organizing carpools to drive voters to their stations and even crowdfunding campaigns to subsidize travel costs for voters.

A similar initiative called #UndiRabu managed to crowdfund RM200,000 (US$50,000) to pay for travel costs. The KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall even rented buses to help voters return to key states.

Meanwhile, postal voters overseas went on a social media blitz late last week, ranting about not receiving their ballots on time or the forms being lost entirely. Many were angry that their ballots would not reach their Returning Officer in time to be counted. Malaysian communities in cities in Australia, New Zealand and the UK pitched in resources to ensure ballots were hand delivered in Malaysia, earning the moniker "The Amazing Race".

A long fight

The National Front or Barisan Nasional, led by caretaker prime minister Najib Razak, is seeking to retain power while opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (Hope Alliance) is spearheaded by former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad.

The fight is Najib's toughest yet and presents a potentially perfect storm for the opposition to seize power. Over the years, support for Najib has eroded amid the 1MDB corruption scandal, mismanagement of Felda (Federal Land Development Authority), gerrymandering and more.

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Reuters / TPG
Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak of Barisan Nasional (National Front) shows his ink-stained finger as he casts his ballot in Malaysia's general election, at a polling station in Pekan, Pahang, Malaysia.

Support for the 92-year-old Mahathir, who last held power as prime minister himself 22 years ago, is exacerbated by the rising cost of living, Goods and Services Taxation, levied at 6 percent and implemented in 2014, and a perceived lack of economic opportunities.

Meanwhile, the opposition coalition finds itself in an uneasy alliance with Mahathir's new Malaysian United Indigenous Party or Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

The opposition was previously led by Mahathir's protege Anwar Ibrahim, who is now imprisoned under a litany of controversial sodomy charges, mostly drawn up by Mahathir himself when he was trying to consolidate power for the ruling government in 1998.

Mahathir's coalition is also battling a former ally in PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party), whose candidates are strategically placed in multi-cornered fights for hot seats as an attempt to dilute opposition votes.

Slim win forecasted for Najib

Independent polling firm Merdeka Center predicted an election win for Najib at 6:30 p.m. last night. Najib, who is contesting ground but still manage to cling to his slimmest victory yet.

The pollster said in a press release that the ruling coalition will only garner 37.3 percent of the popular vote in peninsular Malaysia, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of parliamentary seats. The survey's estimated margin of error was ±2.46 percent.

The survey predicted that Najib’s coalition to win 100 of the 222 parliamentary seats with Mahathir’s alliance clinching only 83 seats while 37 seats are marginal. Voter turnout will be critical in determining the outcome of the marginal seats.

The winning coalition needs to get at least 112 seats. Najib's coalition won 133 seats in the 2013 election, despite having lost the popular vote by 420,860.

Malay tsunami?

Najib and Mahathir, in a last ditch effort last night, gave speeches that was broadcast to millions live on social media. Both continue to galvanizing the Malay vote, as they make up more than 60 percent of total voters.

Merdeka Center also found Malay voters expressed the highest concern about economic issues (46 percent) and followed by good governance issue (17 percent) while younger voters, those below 40 years old, placed emphasis on matters related to good governance and leadership, while voters over 40 years expressed slightly higher on concerns over communal rights (11 percent).

The pollster anticipated Najib to still garner enough support from Malay voters, alongside PAS’ ability to retain at least one quarter of the Malay vote share, which could contribute to Najib's win.

PAS' splinter party – Amanah (National Trust Party) – has not made significant inroads to challenge PAS in their stronghold seats. Amanah supporter Ahmad Lutfi Othman, who is former chief editor for PAS mouthpiece Harakah, said Amanah still has ways to go since this is only its second general election.

“PAS and Umno are exploiting religious issues among the Malay voters, alleging the opposition as anti-Islam and overly liberal. Religious sensitivity is still a contentious issue in Malay-majority constituencies.

“I'm optimistic change in those places will come albeit slowly. There are many Malay voters who are beginning to see through the spin and fear-mongering'” he said over WhatsApp yesterday.

Last night, Mahathir retreated to Langkawi island, and broadcast to more than 1.2 million on Facebook and YouTube as he asked for support from a community hall. Mahathir did not miss a beat despite his age, stood at the podium for more than an hour, playing on nostalgia and hope, reminding Malaysians they had it better during his rule. He also lashed out at Najib, accusing him of money politics, corruption charges, abuse of power, religious and racial fear-mongering – the same allegations he was once tainted with.

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AP / TPG
Mahathir Mohamad delivers his speech during his last campaign rally in Langkawi Island, Malaysia on Tuesday, May 8, 2018.

He ended his 53-point speech with a heartfelt plea for Malaysians to vote for change.

Last week, Mahathir trotted out his former ministers Rafidah Aziz, Rais Yatim and Daim Zainuddin to help canvass support among staunch Malays. They spoke out primarily against Najib while avoiding to taint the rest of his coalition. Obviously, that saw them kicked out of Najib's party – UMNO (United Malays National Organisation).

Meanwhile, Najib was at Pekan, a personal fortress, when he addressed the nation. Tens of thousands were watching on social media and his speech was broadcast live on national TV.

Three “good news” made up the crux of his 30-minute speech. He promised youths aged 26 and below would be fully exempted from paying income tax for the 2017 assessment year. He also announced a special two-day holiday on May 14 and 15 if his coalition wins the election and he dangled an exemption of toll charges for five days of the Hari Raya holiday.

Sabah and Sarawak

In all the previous elections the two East Malaysia states are termed as “safety deposits” for Najib's coalition. However, between the last election and now, much has changed in Sabah.

Led by another Najib discard, Shafie Apdal formed Warisan (Sabah Heritage Party) and aligned himself with the opposition. Shafie was kicked out of government by Najib in 2016 after speaking out during the 1MDB scandal.

Shafie has been a favorite in his home state Sabah even when he contested under Najib's coalition. In the last general election, he retained the Semporna parliamentary seat with a majority of 20,905 votes.

Yesterday he told reporters he was “confident that the wave of change desired by the people of Sabah will reach its peak tomorrow." However, he warned of money politics that is rampant in the state. Sabah has 25 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Meanwhile in Sarawak, grassroots parties have a hold on local politics and majority of them are in Najib's coalition. Although this time, local leaders are careful of showing too much support for Najib, instead chose to highlight state issues.

Although it is the largest state in Malaysia, contributing 31 parliamentary seats, it is not the most populous. In previous elections, some seats are won by Najib's coalition without contest.

For example, Sarawak's Igan is the country's smallest constituency by electorate size (19,592 voters) and in contrast Bangi, an urban seat in Selangor state is one of the biggest with 178,790 voters. Nine of the smallest 10 parliamentary constituencies in electorate size are in Sarawak, which many critics point to gerrymandering since the time when Mahathir was prime minister.

Voters in Sarawak's rural seats are not concerned with the same issues as seen in West Malaysia. The entrenched poor are focused on eking out a living and cash handouts during election season come in handy, in addition to basic development such as electricity and water supply, schools and economic opportunities.

In addition, the opposition coalition hardly made inroads into these areas, providing no alternatives for voters. Opposition only won six seats in the 2013 election.

Selangor – a consolation prize

The richest Malaysian state – Selangor – is expected to remain an opposition stronghold, according to research firm Institute Darul Ehsan on Friday. Firm's deputy chairman, Prof Dr Mohammad Redzuan Othman said Mahathir's coalition will “win big” with an increased support of 7 to 56 percent in a survey in April after the nomination of candidates.

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AP / TPG
A Malaysian citizen casts his ballot during the voting day of general elections in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

The support is contributed by several factors – high support for the Selangor's chief minister, no clear state leader from Najib's coalition and increased voter confidence, especially from Malay voters.

Malay support for Najib in Selangor has declined to 33 percent from 39 percent, while the support from the Malays for PAS remains at 22 percent since January. The Chinese voters' support for Pakatan Harapan in Selangor has surpassed 80 percent and support from Indian voters grew more than 60 percent.

He expected PAS to find it difficult to win a seat in Selangor as a result of a split in Malay votes and the lost of Chinese and Indian support.

Read next: The Next Election Will 'Change the Malaysian Narrative'

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston


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