Stakes high in Malaysia’s pivotal election

(BBC) – Marimuthu Seeniueasan holds keys to his new apartment – a project finished by the government 

On Sunday 5 May Malaysians will vote in the most hotly contested general election in their country’s history.

For the first time since independence in 1957, there is a real possibility that the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition of Prime Minister Najib Razak may be defeated by the Pakatan Rakyat alliance nominally headed by Anwar Ibrahim.

As in any election a host of local and national issues are being debated in the campaign, with accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth at rallies, in newspapers, TV channels and websites, but at its heart is a simple choice for Malaysia’s 13 million voters.

Do they stick with a coalition which, for all the accusations of corruption and cronyism, has delivered solid economic growth and political stability? Or do they chance handing power to a vigorous but largely untested opposition?

Opinion polls suggest the result is too close to call. There is a great deal at stake for both leaders. Barisan Nasional coalition reminds voters that they have benefited from its economic policies 

For Najib Razak, the son of a prime minister, losing his first election as prime minister (he got the job in 2009 when his predecessor resigned), and presiding over his party’s first ever defeat, would be a crushing blow, and perhaps the end of his long political career.

He would almost certainly be challenged for the party leadership.

For Anwar Ibrahim, now 65 years old, this may be his last chance to complete a remarkable comeback, 15 years after he was sacked as deputy prime minister, jailed, beaten and repeatedly prosecuted on what he has always believed were politically-motivated charges.

Failure to win this time could break up the coalition he has built, from his own reformist Keadilan party, the Islamic party PAS, and the ethnic Chinese party DAP.

Cheap rice and petrol

Both men have been campaigning relentlessly across the country, aware that every vote is important. Watching them both on the same day, the differences in style were revealing. braved the pouring rain to take part in an opposition rally 

Mr Anwar arrived in pouring rain at a rally in a patch of ground next to a highway in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

Despite the weather and the late hour, an enthusiastic crowd spilled out into the street, to watch him pour scorn on the government’s performance and promises with characteristic energy.

It had the feel of a grassroots campaign, with palpable excitement about the possibility of change.

Mr Najib chose a desolate housing estate on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, still surrounded by bits of tropical forest.

There were plenty of Barisan volunteers on hand, brandishing ‘WE LOVE PM’ banners, but the rest were families who had been waiting to move into the apartment blocks for 12 years. The privately-built project had stalled; now with government funds it had been finished.

The prime minister’s arrival was accompanied by plenty of fanfare, patriotic songs, and lots of food laid out under tents.

Mr Najib appeared tired, and his speech lacked the passion of opposition rallies.

But its message was clear, and consistent with Barisan’s campaign theme. We have finished this project for you, he said, before handing out keys to the residents. The state government, he said – which has been in the hands of Pakatan since the last election – did not.

Time and again, Barisan TV ads have reminded Malaysians of what the governing coalition has done for them. Cheap rice, cheap petrol, and reliable drinking water, all thanks to generous subsidies.

This has been backed by a whole raft of government hand-outs over the past year, ranging from bonuses for civil servants to vouchers for schoolbooks.

Separating normal welfare spending from pre-election freebies is difficult, but one academic, Bridget Welsh from the Singapore Management University, estimates Barisan has spent an extra $1,500 (£960) per voter.

Read more and watch what first-time voters think at: