Campaign banners for Malaysia's governing and rival opposition coalitions in George Town, a major port and tourist destination in the north of the country (Simon Roughneen)

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Campaign banners for Malaysia’s governing and rival opposition coalitions in George Town, a major port and tourist destination in the north of the country (Simon Roughneen)

GEORGE TOWN — Not many people give Malaysia’s opposition much hope of ending the Barisan Nasional’s 13 election winning streak, when the country goes to the polls next Wednesday May 9th.

“For a government to rule for 60 years in a democracy, it shows there is something wrong with the country,” said Harindra Singh, a volunteer canvasser with the Democratic Action Party, the biggest of the 4 parties that make up the opposition coalition.

The Barisan Nasional, or National Front, has governed Malaysia since independence from the UK in 1957. In the last elections held almost 5 years ago to the day, the Front lost the popular vote by 3% but still won enough of a majority of parliamentary seats to once again form a government.

Billboard featuring Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak in the center of Aloh Setar, the regional capital of Kedah state in Malaysia’s northwest, the home terrain of opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad (Simon Roughneen)

In the years either side of that vote, opposition parties took part in huge demonstrations in Kuala Lumpur calling for reform of the electoral system, which they said was gerrymandered to the point of rigging.

Reform came on March 28, but not the kind the opposition wanted. “Redelineation,” as it is called, seems to have altered constituencies in a way that makes it even harder to see an opposition win.

It means that the urban areas where the opposition is strongest require, in some cases, 3-4 more voters per elected MP elected than in rural areas, where the governing National Front has long been unstoppable.

“All the measures taken greatly enhance the prospect of a Barisan Nasional victory,” said Clive Kessler, a long-time Malaysia watcher at the University of New South Wales.

But in the years since that last election, there has been a transformation of the opposition. An Islamic party, known by its Malay acronym PAS, has split, with reformists forming a group allied to the opposition called Amanah, and the main PAS standing independent of both the opposition and the National Front.

The biggest change has been at the top, however, with the nearly 93 year old Mahathir Mohamad returning to politics to lead the opposition campaign, defying his age with daily speeches in front of thousands of people and campaign appearances in the rural Muslim and ethnic Malay regions where the Front usually wins easily.

“The Mahathir factor may have an impact on those rural areas,” said Norshahril Saat of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “But the government has a long history of supporting these people,” he added.

Malaysia’s opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad speaking at May 5 campaign event Kampung Bukit, Pokok Sena, Kedah State, Malaysia (Simon Roughneen)

The opposition is expecting to do well in urban areas and especially among the 25% of Malaysians who are of Chinese descent, but with allegations of gerrymandering, they cannot win outright unless Mahathir’s historic appeal draws Muslim Malays away from the government, perhaps in tandem with some Muslim Malays opting for PAS and further diluting government support.

In many ways, the incumbent, Prime Minister Najib Razak, is something of Mahathir’s protege. Mahathir’s influence helped Najib win control of the United Malays National Organisation – the main party in the National Front. The handover was a reaction to the opposition faring unexpectedly well in 2008 elections, the start of a surge in popular support for a change of government.

By 2009, backed by Mahathir — then reveling in his post-retirement role as the eminence grise of Malaysian politics — Najib was leading the country, which had escaped the worst effects of the global financial troubles of the day and where the economy is growing at about 5% a year.

Malaysia’s GDP per capita is just under $10,000 per person, going by World Bank statistics. That compares well with eastern Europe’s EU member-states and makes it one of Asia’s better-off countries, though it is still some way off the income levels of Japan, South Korea and neighboring Singapore.

Najib has campaigned on this economic record, asking voters not to risk change. “If we make a wrong choice [all] that we have planned so far will be affected,” he said on Friday, speaking in Hulu Terangganu in Malaysia’s northeast.

The opposition has homed in on a sales tax, or GST, of 6% which was introduced by the government 3 years ago. It says that average incomes are not yet high enough to justify the levy and promised to abolish the sales tax if it wins office. But it has been in turn accused of similar electioneering to the government, which said it will raise the minimum wage if re-elected.

“[G]overnment’s revenues could come under downside pressure, should the GST be abolished,” said Chua Han Teng of BMI Research, an economic consultancy.

Najib has also been accused of hypocrisy over the tax, as he since has had to fend off accusations of mismanaging a state fund known as 1MDB and of receiving the equivalent of around $700 million to personal bank accounts – money described as Saudi Arabian donation and which was, it seems, mostly repaid.

Malaysia’s legal system exonerated the prime minister but the United States Department of Justice is investigating whether up to $3.5 billion siphoned from the fund was used to buy property and artwork, among other items, in the U.S.

Allegations of financial impropriety were what drove Mahathir to defect to the opposition and make a belated return to politics. A notoriously acid tongued premier when it came to dealing with critics of his own authoritarian rule, Mahathir has lost little of that edge, regularly lambasting Najib as a thief.

Addressing a rain-sodden campaign rally in Kuala Lumpur on May 2nd, he said that he regrets his role in helping Najib become prime minister, describing it as “the biggest mistake that I have made in my life.”

Najib fired back two days later, saying he pities Mahathir for being “used” by the opposition and reappearing as a “recycled candidate” in his 90’s. Mahathir, Najib gleefully reminded listeners, used draconian laws to jail critics, including some of the people he is now allied with.

Mahathir was Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years, overseeing its modernisation through the 1980s and 1990s. He said if his side wins he will hand power to Anwar Ibrahim, the long-time opposition leader who is currently serving a jail sentence for allegedly sodomising a former male colleague but is due for release later this year.

It is an unlikely revival of an old alliance: Anwar was Mahathir’s finance minister before a spectacular falling-out saw Anwar lead the late 1990s reformasi (reform) movement, before being jailed for six years — while Mahathir was still prime minister — over similar charges to his current sentence.

Harindra Singh, the opposition canvasser, agreed that Mahathir ruled with an iron fist, but said “at this point in time he has shown he is repented.”

Another opposition supporter, giving his name as Sky Chin, said that he thinks the government can be beaten. “It is possible, we have to hope,” he said, referring to the opposition coalition’s name – the Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope.

But it seems unlikely, all things considered, that the opposition can draw enough government supporters to its side to end the National Front’s six decades in office.

Kai Ostwald, a scholar of Malaysian politics based at the University of British Columbia, said that rural Malay voters “remain ultimately conservative.”

“[W]hile gripes about cost of living and jobs may dominate day-to-day concerns, the fear of political instability and disruptions to the prevailing social order is deeply rooted,” he said.

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