May 4, 2013 3:14 pm

Malaysian rivals make final pitch in closest ever poll

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Candidates in Malaysia’s most closely fought election since independence 56 years ago were making their final pitches to voters on Saturday amid concerns that electoral fraud could mar the result and produce an uncertain outcome.

Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, at the last minute cancelled a planned rally in Kuantan in his home state of Pahang. Instead he will visit his constituency, according to a government official.

Mr Najib, claimed that the opposition was “deeply divided” and urged Malaysians to “vote wisely”

His ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, of which the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) is the largest party, faces a resurgent opposition Pakatan Rakyat (people’s alliance) coalition, led by former jailed opposition veteran Anwar Ibrahim.

Most observers say the poll is too close to call and have raised concerns that regardless of which side wins only a narrow victory is most likely for either side.

That could lead to protests over alleged electoral irregularities by the opposition if Barisan were the victor, or protests – possibly even unrest – if right-wing Malays attempt to disrupt any peaceful transition to a new Pakatan Rakyat administration.

The opposition has never held power and has pledged to dismantle commercial monopolies that have long bound Umno cronies to lucrative business opportunities. It would also liberalise the media, which is largely government-controlled.

The government has in recent days been forced to deny opposition accusations that it illegally arranged for commercial flights to ship voters from Borneo into key swing states from where Barisan appears vulnerable.

There has also been controversy over the indelible ink that will be used for the first time in a Malaysian election, amid some claims that it can be washed off.

Election observers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are on the ground inspecting polling arrangements, according to Malaysia’s Election Commission.

Civil rights group Bersih – Malay for “clean” – says it will have up to 3,000 people stationed at polling sites in 55 constituencies, although this is far less than the 10,000 the organisation had hoped to recruit, according to Ambiga Srinavasan, co-chair of the movement.

Barisan has campaigned on a platform urging voters to trust the government’s continued stewardship of an economy that grew by 5.6 per cent last year.

Mr Najib has also warned that without a mandate Barsisan will be unable to realise what he called “the Malaysian ideal” of developed country status by 2020.

The government on Saturday pointed to a Pew Research Center poll showing that 82 per cent of Malaysians were “satisfied with the way things are going in the country”. That was up from 76 per cent in 2007.

“These findings are testament to the prime minister’s reforms and transformation programmes over the past four years, and show the government is on course for re-election,” the government said.

However another poll, by Malaysian pollster the Merdeka Centre, found on Friday that 42 per cent of voters agreed that Pakatan Rakyat should be given a chance to govern the country” while 41 per cent of voters felt that “only Barisan can govern the country”.

In his final appeal to voters Mr Ibrahim said: “We stand today on the brink of history. We have reached the last twenty-four hours of a historic campaign that will change Malaysia forever.”

Pakatan must win 112 seats in the 222-seat parliament to take power. At the last election it won 82, although that was later reduced to 75 after defections and other reasons.

The coalition won power in five out of Malaysia’s 13 states last time, including Selangor, the country’s largest. The poll is expected to be very close there this time, partly due to an influx of 2.5m young, first-time voters, many of them in Selangor and other western coastal states.

Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Centre, said: “They have changed the demographics of constituencies but due to the very contested nature of them they are quite important.”

Political analysts say the election will hinge on whether Pakatan has made sufficient inroads into Barisan “fortress” states of Johor, a gritty industrial state on peninsular Malaysia’s southern tip, opposite Singapore, and in Sarawak and Sabah, the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.

The Pakatan coalition is a multi-ethnic combination of Mr Anwar’s Keadilan (justice) party, the Democratic Action Party, which represents Chinese, and an Islamist party.

In a final campaign statement Mr Anwar pledged that any transition to power would be “not only . . . historic, but also peaceful”.

“Pakatan Rakyat’s security advisory council of former generals and police will help myself and other leaders through the process,” Mr Ibrahim said in a statement.

He added that he was releasing a “road map” outlining “key actions” that a new Pakatan government would undertake to fulfil its manifesto pledges.

“These are reforms that Barisan Nasional has never dared to implement, but Pakatan Rakyat has the courage to do so – reforms that will bring back a renaissance, a genuine merdeka [independence] and democracy to Malaysia.”

If Pakatan loses, Mr Anwar has said he will retire from politics. Should Mr Najib win only narrowly, he is also under threat as leader.

The 59-year old has cast himself as a reformer who needs a mandate to complete reforms he started when Umno installed him as replacement for his predecessor in 2009. But he faces pressure from right wingers within Umno who could topple him if Barisan only manages a slim victory.

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