Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition continues to lose ground ahead of national elections but may scrape through to retain power while losing the popular vote, according to a poll released Tuesday.
The ruling bloc will retain a slim majority in parliament even though nearly two-thirds of about 15 million eligible voters will vote for the main opposition rival, Pakatan Harapan (PH), led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, or other parties, independent pollster Merdeka forecast on what could be the closest-fought Malaysian election yet.
BN, which has ruled Malaysia throughout the nation’s 61-year history, will garner only 37.3 percent of votes, falling short of the 43.4 percent predicted to go to PH, an opposition coalition, the pollster said. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is not aligned with either coalition, is expected to get 19.3 percent of the vote, according to Merdeka.
In a survey a week ago, Merdeka had said BN would garner 40.3 percent of the popular vote while PH would pull in 43.7 percent of the popular vote.
While BN could lose the popular vote for the second straight election, it is expected to keep 100 of parliament’s 222 seats compared with 83 for PH and two for PAS, it said.
Merdeka pointed out that a “high number” of 37 seats are too close to call, implying that “voter turnout will be a critical factor in determining the outcome of many seats on election day.”
The coalition that wins at least 112 parliamentary seats will lead the government.
In addition, candidates in legislative assemblies of 12 Malaysian states will be on the ballot. Merdeka’s survey of the popular vote did not cover the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, which have historically been pro-Barisan, although there have been recent signs of a swing away from the government in Sabah, reports say.
Merdeka warned that the outcome could change.
“As our survey was concluded at noon on May 8, about 12 hours before the end of the official campaign period, it may not capture any last-minute shift or changes that may take place in the final hours of the campaign.”
The survey found that voters are revolting over a 6 percent sales tax levied by the government (GST), the rising cost of living and perceived government shortfalls. Economic concerns were an issue for 43 percent of the voters, followed by governance and corruption (21 percent), and weaknesses in leadership (8 percent).
The candidates and their coalitions kept campaigning late into Tuesday night. An official 11-day campaigning period was due to end at midnight.
Prime Minister Najib, the BN leader, addressed the nation on live TV at 10 p.m. while former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, the PH leader, offered a dueling speech from Langkawi where he is on the ballot for parliament.
Najib focused on goodies for young voters and Muslims as Ramadan nears.
“Youths under 26 who are working, regardless of their income, will not have to pay income tax,” he said during the televised speech.
In addition, he declared that new public holidays would fall on Monday and Tuesday to prepare for Ramadan on May 16 while toll charges would be dropped for five days next month to allow Muslims to travel home for Eid al-Fitr, which begins on the evening of June 14.
“Toll charges will not have to be paid two days before Hari Raya for those that will go back to their hometowns, and on the first, second, and third day of Hari Raya,” he said using another term for Eid.
Mahathir, 92, a former prime minister who led the country for 22 years and joined the opposition coalition earlier this year, finished off his campaign with a call for voters to join with PH to change government.
“The people alone cannot save themselves and the country,” Mahathir said in his final speech before polls open. “A party like PH is unlikely to be able to revive the country alone, but the people and party together can do that, God willing!
“So go out to vote and vote for Pakatan Harapan, hoping to save Malaysia from kleptocracy and restore Malaysia democracy and rule of law.”
At the same time that Mahathir was speaking, Malaysia’s finance minister sponsored a concert 4 km (2.5 miles) away featuring the country’s best singers and performers.
In the weeks leading up to the election, opposition politicians have accused the ruling bloc of throwing up a series of roadblocks to prevent Pakatan from winning at the polls.
In March, the parliament pushed through a new electoral map that drew protests from opposition lawmakers claiming it favored the ruling BN party. The map appears to pack more voters in districts held by the opposition while creating safe BN districts in rural areas.
In early April, parliament then passed an anti-fake news law despite opposition concerns that it could be used as punishment against those seeking to oust the ruling party.
The concerns came to fruition in the last week of the 11-day campaign. On May 2, authorities confirmed they were investigating Mahathir under the new law over claims that he suspected sabotage of a private plane taking him from the capital Kuala Lumpur to his home Langkawi district.
Three days later, police announced that a second opposition leader, Rafizi Ramli, also was being investigated under the new law over remarks on social media that an opposition candidate in Negeri Sembilan state was not allowed to file nomination papers.
In April, just days after the parliament passed the anti-fake news law, the Registrar of Societies (RoS) deregistered Mahathir’s United Malaysian Indigenous Party (Bersatu) for failing to meet a 30-day deadline to turn over requested documents.
And because RoS also rejected an application by Pakatan to be registered as a coalition, the bloc’s four member parties later agreed to contest the election together under the symbol of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), which is headed by jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim.