Malaysia's Election May Not Be a Done Deal After All

(Bloomberg) -- In financial centers around the world, it looks like Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will easily win re-election this week.

“I expect this to be a non-event with Najib coming away with a resounding victory,” said Edwin Gutierrez, the London-based head of emerging-market sovereign debt at Aberdeen Standard Investments, which oversees 575.7 billion pounds ($821 billion) globally. “That is pretty much the overwhelming consensus from the market.”

But on the ground in Southeast Asia, there’s more uncertainty. Analysts and politicians on both sides of the aisle are warning of a close fight in the May 9 election as Najib’s coalition looks to extend its unbroken 61-year rule.

Najib last month predicted a better performance this time around compared with five years ago, when his Barisan Nasional coalition won 133 constituencies -- roughly 59 percent of parliamentary seats -- in its worst performance ever. Failure to improve may increase pressure from within his ruling United Malays National Organisation party to step aside.

This time he’s facing a four-party opposition bloc led by Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s longest-serving leader who fell out with the ruling party. While Mahathir has demonstrated an ability to win Malay votes, his diverse coalition has at times struggled to present a cohesive message to voters.

Tight Race

Recent moves from Najib’s administration suggest some anxiety. Last month, authorities introduced a law to jail offenders who spread fake news, which has been criticized as an attempt to stifle dissent. Mahathir’s party was temporarily banned from campaigning and the government has redrawn electoral boundaries, an exercise which opposition lawmakers say will benefit the ruling coalition.

“If BN fails to gain a considerable margin from 133, then questions will continue if he is still the right man for the job from inside and outside his party,” said Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani, an analyst from consultancy BowerGroupAsia in Kuala Lumpur.

Polls show that any victory may hinge on two states in Borneo that account for a quarter of seats in parliament despite holding only about 20 percent of Malaysia’s population. The disparity helped explain why in 2013 the opposition won the popular vote for the first time yet lost the election.

‘Momentum’

In Peninsular Malaysia, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition is set to win 43.7 percent of the popular vote compared with 40.3 percent for Barisan Nasional, according to the latest poll by Merdeka Center. Still, the ruling coalition is expected to win on the back of Malay support and multi-cornered fights, the pollster said based on a survey conducted from April 28 to May 1.

“Definitely, we have the momentum in terms of machinery, preparation and also unity, but we never take things for granted,” said Zaidel Baharuddin, the executive secretary of the ruling coalition’s youth arm. “Nothing is a done deal. Voters can change their mind in the last 48 hours.”

Najib, who has survived a corruption scandal and a slump in oil prices, is counting on an economic upturn and a divided opposition to boost his Barisan Nasional coalition’s fortunes in the election. The $297 billion economy expanded at the fastest pace in three years in 2017, foreign investment is pouring in and a recovery in oil prices promises to lend a bounce to the nation’s energy-export earnings.

Voter Anger

Still, voter anger about the rising cost of living has become a key campaign issue. The government has sought to mitigate the pain with cash handouts, tax reductions and allocations for affordable homes.

The opposition bloc has highlighted bread-and-butter issues while also keeping the spotlight on a money-laundering scandal involving state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., which has implicated Najib. He has denied any wrongdoing.

"This election is about food on the table for the Average Joe,” said opposition politician Rafizi Ramli, who runs a separate research outfit that tracks voter sentiments. “And it’s very difficult to predict how that translates into votes unless you have direct access to how the common people feel."

The election may come down to settlers under the Federal Land Development Authority, a group of farmers who make up the majority of voters in 54 out of 222 federal constituencies. Sentiment among them soured after the agency was hit by a string of financial scandals, prompting the ruling coalition to announce cash handouts and replanting grants to keep their support.

Younger Malay voters are also key as youth unemployment soars. Both Najib and Mahathir are vying to win over Malays, which comprise about 60 percent of registered voters.

Lisa J Ariffin, a 28-year-old Malay student, said her 75-year-old mother won’t vote for Barisan Nasional for the first time in her life. She remains undecided.

“I just feel that it’s not great leadership and it’s time for a change,” Ariffin said. “But at the same time I’m not confident with the opposition.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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