Malaysian Election Tightens

With six days to go before national elections in Malaysia, the signs are starting to point to a real surge for the three-party Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition that should have political strategists for the ruling Barisan Nasional seriously concerned.

All 222 seats in the Parliament are up for election, where the Barisan today holds 137 of the seats and the opposition holds 75. The rest are held by splinter parties or independents. It has been a bitter contest, with more than 2,000 cases of arson or other election-related crimes recorded by police. Most political analysts say it is the closest race since Malaysia became a country.

The crowds drawn to opposition ceramahs, or lectures, are huge, including one last week at the administrative capital of Putrajaya for Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, the spiritual leader of the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia, or PAS, to introduce the PAS candidate for the Putrajaya parliamentary seat.

The district is peopled overwhelmingly by government servants, most of whom are ethnic Malays who make up the bulk of support for the United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the Barisan. It is a seat that should be overwhelmingly in UMNO hands.

Nik Mat's stunning reception impelled UMNO to hold its own rally the next day, bringing in former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to campaign for Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, the party's candidate. Sources say that the UMNO "war room" has moved Putrajaya into the "grey" column instead of the column indicating a sure win.

"The mood on the ground is certainly leaning towards Pakatan," a Chinese businessman told Asia Sentinel. "Despite all the promotional activities such as full-page ads on all national newspapers, billboard signage, prime time TV commercial during the news hours and propaganda radio songs and commercials, Pakatan seems to be a runaway winner when it comes to popularity."

The race has very clearly devolved into a contest between the mainstream media, all of which are owned by and favor the Barisan, and the major news websites, which are either faintly neutral or outright opposed to it. The opposition has been frozen out of advertising in print, on the national radio and television stations and cable television.

"The new media is certainly playing a major role: twitter, Facebook, Google are in full swing for the election," the businessman said. "At this point, it looks like we are living in a completely different world. The media landscape has changed, while the traditional media is taking a hit on trustworthiness and independence, digital media are becoming the mainstream."

"Crowds at Barisan ceramahs - except for the prime minister's - have been abysmal," said a political analyst in Kuala Lumpur. "Opposition ceramahs are getting huge turnouts. That doesn't translate into votes - that's what we thought in 2008. But the lack of public support has started to worry UMNO leaders. I am not sure the Barisan will lose, but finally they are running seriously scared."

That coincides with the release of a poll by Universiti Malaya's Democratic and Election Center conducted in early April that indicated that 43percent of voters believe Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, is qualified to be prime minister while 39 percent favored Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak. Of the 1,407 respondents, 18 percent said they were uncertain. Najib's rating fell by 4 points from the center's last poll in January, while Anwar's rose by 1.

Among first-time voters, who number 2.3 million added since the 2008 poll, 48 percent said they believed Anwar to be qualified as prime minister while only 25 percent of respondents said the same for Najib.

While those figures are somewhat ominous for the prime minister, they are particularly ominous for UMNO. In previous polls by the Merdeka Center think tank, Najib has consistently outrun his party by a wide margin. If his own standing has dipped sharply, it could spell considerable trouble for UMNO.

Longtime political analysts tended to downplay the university's poll, pointing out that it was taken in Peninsular Malaysia and didn't include the two states that make up East Malaysia. Also, said Rita Sim, a co-founder of the Center for Strategic Engagement think tank, the poll appears to have been taken among urban voters, while the Barisan's base, made up of ethnic Indian and Malay voters, is predominantly rural.

Among battleground states, observers say, are the East Malaysian state of Sabah and Selangor, which surrounds the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur. Opposition figures have complained that massive numbers of phantom voters have been registered in both states. Political analysts say the two could both go to the Barisan. Sabah has always been in Barisan hands, Selangor was won by the opposition in 2008 and the Barisan has made it a priority to win it back.

Johor, the southern state directly across the strait from Singapore, has always been a Barisan stronghold. However, Malaysiakini, the Kuala Lumpur-based independent news website, reported today that Pakatan Rakyat believes it has a solid foothold in the 11 seats it targeted. Lim Kit Siang, the venerable Democratic Action Party leader, moved from his previous seat to one in Johor as a part of the DAP's strategy to attempt to deliver a coup de gras for the Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest party in the Barisan. Accordingly, the MCA has moved in its own resources, bringing in party leader Chua Soi Lek and Youth chief Wee Ka Siong. The state is considered vulnerable because of its relatively large Chinese population as well as a fairly large segment of middle-class, urban ethnic Malays.

Malay voters in Johor are not homogeneous, Malaysiakini said. Their political inclination largely depends on three factors - the urban and rural divide, the opposition's groundwork in the constituency, and age. From various Pakatan ceramahs in Malay areas, it was clear that those located at urban towns received better attendance compared to those in rural Malay villages, and the participants were mostly youths.

"Whatever the outcome is on 5th May, Malaysia will be a very different country, politically and socially," the Chinese businessman said. "The nation is maturing and its people are starting to take a real stand on what matters."