Campaigning reaches climax in Malaysia elections amid predicted opposition gains
By VIJAY JOSHI,Associated Press Writer AP - Saturday, March 8
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Campaigning reached a climax Friday for general elections in Malaysia that could see gains for the opposition amid anger among Chinese and Indian minorities over race and religion.
Despite expectations of an improved showing for the country's small opposition, the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is seen certain to win Saturday's elections as they have done for decades.
On Friday, Abdullah met fishermen and visited a mosque in the northern state of Penang, while his deputy, Najib Razak, inaugurated a health clinic and met schoolteachers and senior citizens in eastern Pahang.
"Every time you face the election, you get some degree of anxiety because we cannot assume that victory is in our hands," Najib told reporters.
At stake in the elections are 222 seats in the Parliament. Twelve of Malaysia's 13 states will also go to the polls simultaneously to elect state legislatures. Most of the results will be known by early Sunday.
Unlike other parliamentary democracies, campaigning is low-key in Malaysia, largely because the weak opposition has little money to push through its message, and the ruling National Front has little need to prove its credentials.
The National Front has won every election since independence in 1957, and is expected to win again even though it is unlikely to repeat its 2004 performance when it captured 91 percent of Parliamentary seats.
Tricia Yeoh, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies think tank, predicted the opposition would win between 35 and 38 seats in Parliament, nearly doubling the 19 seats it held before Parliament was dissolved.
"There should be a swing in these seats" due to Chinese and Indians voting for the opposition, Yeoh said. "That's the fear of the BN ... The Chinese and Indian votes will be the important swing votes," she told The Associated Press.
A reduced majority for the National Front in Parliament would be seen as a personal rebuke for Abdullah, who has lost much of the goodwill he received when he took office in 2003, replacing longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad.
Abdullah has been blamed for failing to properly manage inflation, crime, corruption and most importantly ethnic tensions between the minorities and the majority Malays.
Muslim Malays make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, and form the bulk of voters for Abdullah's United Malays National Organization. The party dominates the National Front coalition, which includes Chinese- and Indian-based parties in a power-sharing arrangement that has ensured racial peace in this multiethnic country.
But the minorities have complained of increasing discrimination, citing a 37-year-old affirmative action program for Malays that shows no sign of being diluted despite their rising standards of living. The program gives Malays preference in government jobs, business, education and religion.
The Chinese and Indians are also angry at a string of court decisions in religious disputes that have gone in favor of Malays. Indians were incensed by the demolition of Hindu temples by authorities last year.
"The problem is not with the Malays. The problem is with the corrupt leadership of this country," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told a rally in Kuala Lumpur Thursday night.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister under Mahathir, promised to end racial discrimination if his People's Justice Party wins, a virtually impossible scenario.
"We want strong Malays, strong Chinese, strong Indians ... Take the best Malays, let them work with the best Chinese and the best Indians," he said to roaring applause.
At another rally on Thursday night in Chinese-dominated Penang, the opposition Democratic Action Party drew some 30,000 people, compared to a few thousand at a speech by Prime Minister Abdullah earlier.
"I think we have broken some new ground," said Jeff Ooi, a DAP candidate. "We are still hoping that the massive crowds will translate into votes. People are disappointed with how the government has been run in the past few years. People are dissatisfied with the inequitable distribution of wealth and opportunities."
Still, large crowds at opposition rallies do not always translate into votes.
"It's your choice but I hope the people think carefully," Abdullah told his rally, warning that the minorities will have no voice in the coalition if they do not vote for the Front.
Associated Press reporters Sean Yoong and Julia Zappei in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.
Malaysian govt in last-ditch bid to counter opposition: Malaysia's ruling coalition made an all-out push Friday on the eve of elections to counter a resurgent opposition which hopes to deny it a two-thirds majority for the first time.
Political observers said the coalition that has ruled for half a century is rattled by signs that minority ethnic Chinese and Indians will defect to the opposition led by charismatic former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
Newspapers linked to the government, which is dominated by Muslim Malays who make up 60 percent of the population, splashed front-page warnings that the minorities could lose their voice in the multi-ethnic coalition.
"I do not want to form a government that is made up of only one race," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said of the indications that the Chinese and Indian parties in the Barisan Nasional coalition could be hit on Saturday.
"I hope the status quo is maintained in the interests of all."
Pollsters are tipping the opposition to claim about a fifth of the seats in the new 222-seat parliament, doubling its presence but falling short of the 75 it needs to break the majority that allows the government to amend the constitution at will.
The Merdeka Centre research firm said the three opposition parties could seize about 40 seats, mostly to the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and the Islamic hardliners PAS.
Abdullah's government has mounted a savage attack on Anwar in recent days, in what observers said was a sign his Keadilan party is posing a real threat by appealing to voters of all races -- a first in Malaysian politics.
"Anwar has done a good job in terms of being able to organise a national campaign," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University, who is here for the elections.
"Keadilan as a party is trying to reach across the races, and long term that potentially gives it the power to be able to govern."
Anwar and other opposition leaders have been drawing big crowds at political rallies in Kuala Lumpur, campaigning on issues like high inflation and rising crime rates which resonate with voters.
More than 7,000 Malaysians of all races braved the pouring rain to gather in a village outside the capital Thursday night to hear Anwar speak, standing transfixed despite the thunder and lightning.
"You can cheat as much as you want, but you cannot change the will of the people," he roared, drawing chants of "Reformasi, Reformasi", the battle cry that emerged after his 1998 dismissal and jailing.
Anwar was convicted of sex charges and corruption, charges he said were politically motivated. The sex count was later quashed but the corruption conviction makes him ineligible to stand for office until April.
Meanwhile, Abdullah is attempting to shore up support from minorities concerned over the rising "Islamisation" of Malaysia and decades-old discrimination policies that favour Malays.
"The tone is becoming increasingly defensive," Welsh said. "They've moved from trying to focus on their rhetoric, to attacking the opposition, which shows a real sense of concern."
Opposition parties warn that the polls may not be a fair fight, saying they are concerned over fraud including phantom voters and manipulation of postal votes in tightly contested seats.
Steven Gan, founder of online news portal Malaysiakini, said activity on the site had risen dramatically in recent months after unprecedented protests by ethnic Indians.
"I think that definitely you can sense there is a heightened interest, but whether this will be translated into votes is another issue," he said.
A notable battle in the campaign is the northern state of Kelantan, the only state the coalition does not hold and which it is hoping to snatch from the Islamic PAS, which has ruled there for 18 years.
"We think we will win by a comfortable margin," said Awang Adek Hussin, who is leading the Barisan Nasional charge to retake impoverished Kelantan, with promises of billions of dollars in investment and infrastructure.
Malaysian govt confident of seizing Islamic stronghold: Malaysia's ruling coalition said Friday it was confident of seizing the northern state of Kelantan in Saturday's general elections, ending 18 years of conservative Islamic rule.
Kelantan is the only state not held by the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and a victory there would be a major boost for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is expected to lose ground elsewhere in the country.
After months of intensive campaigning including coalition promises of billions of dollars in development funds, analysts say the race with the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is neck-and-neck.
But Awang Adek Hussin, who is leading the coalition's charge to retake Kelantan and is tipped to be chief minister if the state changes hands, said he was confident of victory.
"We think we will win by a comfortable margin," he told AFP.
PAS controls the 45-seat state legislature with just a one-seat majority.
"If we can get 28 (seats) I will be happy. Anything more will be a bonus," he said.
PAS has changed tack in recent years, dropping the hardline rhetoric that alienated voters in 2004 elections and instead focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as improving welfare services and countering inflation.
"(PAS) has not been able to deliver on their promises because of sheer lack of funds and they are quick to make promises, new promises because they can't keep the old ones," Awang Adek said.
At the height of its power, PAS controlled Kelantan and neighbouring Terengganu state, which it won in 1999, but its goal of turning Malaysia into an Islamic state is credited with losing Terengganu in 2004.
PAS vice-president Husam Musa said most voters in Kelantan, which is one of Malaysia's poorest states, still supported the party's brand of spiritual development.
"We will do well as we have the people's support," he told reporters, but added that he was concerned vote buying and electoral fraud could skew the results.
"This could mean nothing if the BN uses money to buy votes and if there are phantom voters introduced into the state," he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said this week that Malaysians will be denied a fair vote in Saturday's general election, accusing the government of muzzling the opposition and manipulating the electoral process.