(Bloomberg) -- Malaysia’s election will see a sharp rise in multi-cornered contests for individual seats that could hurt the opposition but also make it harder for Prime Minister Najib Razak to secure a two-thirds majority in parliament.
Only 30 of the 222 seats in the May 9 vote will have two candidates, one from the ruling coalition and main opposition grouping. The rest will have as many as four candidates -- and one even has six -- according to the Election Commission website.
Plans by a splinter opposition Islamic party known as PAS to stand its own contenders in many seats could see the vote split when it comes to Malaysia’s ethnic Malay majority, making it harder for the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition to pick up Malay votes. But equally it could dilute the Malay vote for Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition.
“Chances are the votes will be split and weakened for both of the major coalitions,” Johan Saravanamuttu, an adjunct senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said by phone. “BN won’t get a two-thirds majority, I’m willing to put my neck out for that call.”
“The incumbent has been in power for so long that chances are that it will still do better than the opposition," he said. "But there’s a groundswell of anti-BN sentiment too" that may see support shift to some opposition and independent candidates.
Najib’s United Malays National Organisation -- the leading member of Barisan Nasional -- is seeking to add to its six decades in power, having held office since Malaysia’s independence. Still, Barisan Nasional won by its slimmest margin yet in the last election in 2013, losing the popular vote for the first time. And it ceded its two thirds majority in parliament in 2008.
The premier has pushed to shore up support from ethnic Malays since 2013, increasing cash handouts to farmers, civil servants and the low-paid. The opposition meanwhile is made up of a disparate group of parties and recently suffered the split from PAS, while de-facto leader Anwar Ibrahim is in jail. Former premier Mahathir Mohamed is now leading Pakatan Harapan to the election as its candidate for prime minister.
Still, UMNO faces discontent over rising living costs, including in its heartland of rural areas, and Mahathir is portraying himself as a champion of ordinary Malays. He has also sought to pressure Najib over a long-running scandal over the finances of state investment fund 1MDB.
Najib, who said in an interview last week that he was confident of a better showing than 2013, will be in a four-cornered fight for his own district of Pekan in Pahang state. Competing against him will be candidates from Pakatan Harapan and PAS, plus an independent contender. Mahathir will be up against candidates from Barisan Nasional and PAS on the island of Langkawi in Kedah state.
Both Najib and Mahathir should win their seats, with Pakatan Harapan likely to win six to eight more spots in Kedah due to the “Mahathir effect,” said political analyst Ahmad Martadha Mohamed from Universiti Utara Malaysia.
“Overall, regardless of who wins, the rise of new candidates and new parties show that democracy is vibrant in Malaysia,” he said. “People are becoming more invested in voting and more interested in the future of the country.”
Analysts are still predicting that Barisan Nasional will secure more than 50 percent of parliamentary seats, enough for a victory. Eurasia Group has set the ruling coalition’s chances of winning at 85 percent, while cautioning that it’s unlikely to regain a two-thirds majority.
There are not yet signs of the “Malay tsunami” that Mahathir has said will move over to the opposition, Eurasia’s Asia director Peter Mumford wrote in a note. Still, he added that surveys showed Malay support for Barisan Nasional has dropped by an average of eight percentage points in peninsular Malaysia since 2013.
“A weakened Najib would have less political capital to push ahead with post-election fiscal consolidation, though he would not likely go as far as scrapping the unpopular GST,” Mumford said, referring to the six percent goods and services tax introduced in 2015. A worse result would also put pressure on Najib to groom a successor in time for the next vote, he said.
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