A ballot box, left, sits next to voting booths at a polling station during a general election in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photographer: Ore Huiying/Bloomberg)

Malaysia Counts Votes in Election to Determine Najib's Future

(Bloomberg) -- Vote counting is underway in Malaysia’s election in a contest that will determine whether Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition can extend its 61-year run in power.

Poll closed at 5 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur, and a winner may not be known until late in the evening. Turnout reached 69 percent as of 3 p.m. local time, according to the Election Commission website. There’s 222 parliamentary seats in total -- Najib needs to win 112 to retain power and the opposition needs to win as many to unseat him.

Throughout the day, voters expressed concerns about the country’s racial divisions, the sale of public assets and the need for change, although many were also content with the government’s performance even as it battles anxiety over rising living costs and lingering corruption allegations.

"I think about inflation and how fresh graduates are not earning enough," said Amirul Afiq, 22, a mechanical engineering student. "I am concerned about the job market -- I still can’t find an internship for June. It may be even harder to find a job when I graduate next year."

Malaysia Counts Votes in Election to Determine Najib's Future

Fourth-generation Malaysian Mak Hon Hoe, 46, called for the development of a fairer society that did not focus on the formal identification of race on everything from government forms to school enrollments. "Race is still an issue -- we want a Malaysian identity, yet we’re still separated in racial categories."

Najib, 64, is under pressure to improve upon his performance in the 2013 election, when his Barisan Nasional coalition squeaked out a win while losing the popular vote for the first time. His main challenger is the 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister who effectively came out of retirement to try and oust Najib.

“We will ensure tomorrow is better than today,” Najib said on Tuesday night in his final campaign speech.

Najib’s coalition is set to retain power even though it may lose the popular vote, according to a survey conducted by Merdeka Center For Opinion Research from April 28 to noon on Tuesday. It involved phone interviews with about 1,579 registered voters in 70 marginal seats in Peninsular Malaysia, which is home to the capital Kuala Lumpur and holds roughly 80 percent of the population.

Malaysia Counts Votes in Election to Determine Najib's Future

Polls in the run-up to the vote didn’t account for two states in the rain forest-covered island of Borneo accounting for a quarter of all seats. These have traditionally been a Barisan Nasional stronghold.

Both Najib and Mahathir, who have traded insults during the campaign, are seeking to court the support of the ethnic Malays who make up around 60 percent of all voters. Mahathir leads the four-party opposition alliance called Pakatan Harapan, which also includes Malaysia’s largest ethnic Chinese party.

Plans by a splinter opposition Islamic party known as PAS to stand its own contenders in many seats could siphon Malay votes away from Pakatan Harapan, ultimately helping Najib’s coalition. PAS had cooperated with the main opposition bloc in the 2013 election.

Malaysia Counts Votes in Election to Determine Najib's Future

Najib said in an interview last month that he was confident of a better showing than 2013. In that election, his Barisan Nasional coalition won 133 constituencies -- roughly 59 percent of parliamentary seats -- in its worst performance ever. He is counting on an economic upturn and a divided opposition to boost his chances this time around.

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.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.