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Malaysia's ruling coalition faces toughest election yet

National Front 'in danger of being ousted' but critics say poll rigged in its favor

Malaysia's ruling coalition faces toughest election yet

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (front, 2nd R) of the ruling coalition party Barisan Nasional poses for pictures with his supporters during a campaign event ahead of the upcoming 14th general elections, in Pekan, Pahang on May 6. Malaysia's 14th general election will be held on May 9. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia

May 8, 2018

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On the eve of Malaysia's 14th general election, angry voters are preparing to oust Prime Minister Najib Razak and his Barisan Nasional (BN), the coalition of parties that have led the country since the 1960s.

The system, however, is rigged against them, election observers say.

In contrast, attendance levels at political talks — known as cerahmahs — organized by the opposition alliance have been large and enthusiastic. The mood is markedly different from similar gatherings put together by BN candidates.

Reports claim that BN candidates have been addressing rows of neatly arranged but unoccupied chairs while a few curious members look on from the fringes.

"Looks like the opposition [is] getting stronger by the hour. Barisan Nasional [also known as the National Front] in great danger of being ousted nationwide," said Lokman, a 37-year-old civil servant who declined to give his full name.

"Many people are simply fed up with it," he added.

Concern is growing that voters may be turning their backs on the long-ruling coalition.

In an apparent attempt at damage control, Najib responded to images and videos showing wildly contrasting scenes at the respective rallies that went viral on social media by blasting them as "fake news."

"They are bringing in outsiders by bus and then claiming they have public support," he said at a rally in Kepala Batas in Penang on the northwest coast of the Malaysian Peninsula on May 6.

"But for us over here ... look at the support we receive, everyone here today is a genuine supporter [of the BN]," he added.

Government-leaning private television station TV3 doubled down on its criticism of the differently sized crowds by claiming the images of jubilant Malaysians at opposition rallies were "doctored photographs" and a "desperate act" by the opposition.

"The opposition tactic exposed by the prime minister refers to photographs circulated on social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp that shows pictures as if there were a sea of people present, particularly at cerahmash run by Mahathir," said the news anchor, referring to opposition leader and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Berita Harian, a conservative Malay-language newspaper, quoted cabinet member Azalina Otman as also slamming the images as fakes in a bid to attract undecided voters.

However, Election Commission officials have been cutting out or painting over Otman's image on some billboards and police are now investigating him for spreading "fake news" over claims that his plane was sabotaged in the run-up to the elections on May 9.

Former minister Rais Yatim believes Najib's party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has set itself up for a fall.

"I don't like to make predictions but my observation [is that the UNMO] will become history if it doesn't develop into something new quickly," he said.

"But I think it is too late for them," he told journalists after attending an opposition rally in early May.

He joins fellow UMNO veterans including former finance minister Daim Zainuddin and former trade minister Rafidah Aziz in campaigning for the opposition — with the polls just days away.

Other pundits remain unconvinced the Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance stands a chance against the well-financed BN juggernaut.

"It's difficult to predict with the Election Commission having rigged the electoral rolls, the manipulation postal votes and voters being moved [from one constituency to another]," he claimed.

"One thing is certain. The Malay voters are split. There is a certain percentage swing to Dr M [Mahathir Mohamad] and the PKR [People's Justice Party] so the question of will there be a Malay tsunami on polling day remains to be seen," said one political observer on request of anonymity.

"Anger is mounting and there are fence sitters leaning towards Mahathir, but the EC is there to monitor the [re]distribution of postal votes and [keep a close watch] on polling day, which will make it difficult for the votes to be spoiled."

Malaysian electoral reform groups Bersih and Engage have also warned of possible fraud. Their study of voters' rolls found over 2.5 million voters discrepancies.

"A defective electoral roll will bring into question the legitimacy of the whole election," they said in a statement on May 3

Their conclusion was that the flaws in the rolls point to a deliberate plan to impact elections in marginal constituencies.

In Sabah and Sarawak, the two Borneo states with large Christian populations, the outlook is favorable for the ruling coalition even though the opposition Sabah Heritage Party has been gaining momentum.

"The BN looks comfortable at the moment, but if the mood for change hits Sabah there is a possibility they will be mauled," said a local who also asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

"I think Pakatan [Harapan] will take it this time with a comfortable majority. If Sabah can deliver 15-20 seats, then that should definitely be the case," said a retired businessman called Siva.

"I think it's anger against the BN and inflation that is the BN's biggest problem, and the opposition has been successful in using this [to highlight the failings of the BN," he added,

Nga, a church worker in Mukah, Sarawak, said: "If you listen to the youth, they prefer change but, looking at the campaigns right now, it seems as though the BN is still holding firm here. I've only spotted a few opposition flags here.

"People don't really like the BN candidate," he said, referring to Hanifah Hajar Taib, the daughter of former Sarawak chief minister and current head of state Abdul Taib Mahmud.

"But if we look at the last election, we can see the same pattern. People didn't like Toyad but in the end, he won," he said, using the abbreviated name for Muhammad Michael Leo Toyad Abdullah, an MP who represents the Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu (PBB) in the BN coalition.

About 14.8 million of Malaysia's 31.2 million population have registered to vote in the upcoming election.

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