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Malaysia in transition

Malaysia election campaign to kick off with uncertain outcome

Mahathir's party set back by gerrymandering and lack of rural support

KUALA LUMPUR -- Malaysia is set to officially kick off an 11-day election campaign with nominations beginning on Saturday. The ruling coalition is thought will win the vote on May 9, but without the publication of any independent election poll, the result is hard to predict. 

Prime Minister Najib Razak is defending the ruling alliance Barisan Nasional or National Front's unbroken winning streak since independence in 1957, taking on his former mentor and ex-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Both men say they are confident of winning the majority of the 222 parliamentary seats but a victory hinges on who can extract the most votes out of the Malays, the largest ethnic group in the country, many of whom are conservative in rural constituencies.

Najib will defend Pekan, a rural constituency facing the South China Sea. Most of his colleagues in the cabinet will also seek re-election, including Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed.

The National Front is going to the polls on the back of a robust economy sustained by strong domestic spending and exports. Najib has vowed to continue with the ruling government's track record of bringing in more infrastructure developments, including the construction of the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high speed rail.

But the Mahathir-led opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan or Alliance of Hope is raising issues related to the rising cost of living, which will resonate with many in the lower and middle income groups. It is also condemning Najib's link to the scandal-tainted state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad.

The opposition is fighting an uphill battle, weakened by a recent redrawing of electoral boundaries that purportedly favors the ruling alliance. Its publicity campaign is also restricted by a lack of funds, prompting the heavy use of social media on the one hand to air political messages and on the other to plead for public donations.

To add insult to injury, Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia or the Malaysian United Indigenous Party has been slapped with a temporary ban by the Registrar of Societies on a technicality which the party will be challenging in court.

Separately, the country's Election Commission said on Tuesday that political parties can only display images of party presidents as campaign material, effectively ruling out Mahathir, who is the chairman of his own party and the opposition alliance.

"His face sells," said Yeo Bee Yin, an election candidate with the Democratic Action Party, a member of the opposition alliance, referring to Mahathir. Many especially in the rural areas remember fondly the 92-year-old reign as prime minister between 1981 and 2003.

Mahathir will be contesting in Langkawi, a northern island known for its beach resorts. The island and other rural constituencies, which account for the majority of the total seats hold the key to victory for both contesting alliances.

In their election manifestos, both parties dangled populist policies, promising to lift the financial burden of the lower income groups and spur developments in the countryside. Yet, the campaign so far has focused less on debating the merits of the election promises than mocking each other's leadership.

Mahathir called Najib a thief for his role in the mismanagement of funds at 1MDB, an accusation that the prime minister has repeatedly denied. Najib instead played the race card, claiming that Mahathir was being used by the Democratic Action Party, which is popular with ethnic Chinese Malaysians in urban areas, to split the Malay votes.

To break into the ruling alliance's stronghold in the provincial states of Kedah, Perak and Johor, the opposition has held large-scale rallies with Mahathir and key leaders delivering speeches that were followed by thousands on the ground and on live-streaming videos on social media.

Daily posting, both free and sponsored on Facebook and Twitter, have become a key tool to counter the ruling alliance's election publicity in government-controlled press. One Malay video, "I am leaving soon," had Mahathir speaking poetically and emotionally about his struggles for the nation. It has attracted over 580,000 views and 20,000 shares on Facebook.

Still, these numbers on social media, whether it is of Mahathir's or Najib's followers, are not enough to forecast the outcome of the election. Independent pollsters have not publicized their findings although many observers predict a win for the incumbent.

The uncertainty is being perpetuated by multiple candidates contesting the first-past-the-post single representative seats. Smaller parties including the Islamic conservative Parti Se Islam Malaysia, or PAS, will be contesting in more than 150 seats, potentially reducing the winning odds for the Mahathir-led opposition.

Whoever wins the election will face the challenge of leading Malaysia's ambition to become a developed country and close the widening gap between the lower 40% of households earning less than 3,000 ringgit ($765) monthly and the rest of the population. The incoming government will also need to mend distrust among the different ethnic groups in the country.

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