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MALAYSIA GOES TO THE POLLS

Malaysia Elections: Latest polls show tight contest

Pakatan Harapan set to win 43.4% of popular vote while Barisan Nasional to bag 37.3%: Merdeka Center

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It's not just any other election for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak: The vote on Wednesday is personal.

Kuala Lumpur

IT'S NOT just any other election for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak: The vote on Wednesday is personal.

His main challenger, Mahathir Mohamad, led the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition for about a third of its 61-year run in power, making him Malaysia's longest-serving prime minister. He backed Mr Najib to replace his successor over a decade ago, but now wants to boot him from office.

A solid victory would help Mr Najib, 64, move beyond a corruption scandal involving state-owned investment fund 1MDB, which has dogged him despite his repeated denials of wrongdoing.

"If Mahathir succeeds in bringing down Najib and the very regime he created, he will have proved himself as the most influential politician in Malaysian history," said Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser to the Pacific Research Centre in Kuala Lumpur.

"A Najib win, meanwhile, shows that he has truly stepped out of Mahathir's shadow and legacy, and established himself as a powerful politician in his own right."

Dr Mahathir spent much of his 22 years in power grooming Mr Najib to take his place. Yet shortly after the latter finally took office in 2009, Dr Mahathir turned on him - citing worsening race relations and a tougher business environment. The attacks continued for years, and Dr Mahathir in January offered himself up as a prime minister candidate for the opposition coalition while de-facto leader Anwar Ibrahim sits in jail.

The two fell out over a myriad policy issues, including Mr Najib's decision to abolish the Internal Security Act, his performance in the 2013 general election and the 1MDB controversy.

Polls show a tight contest between Najib's Barisan Nasional and Mahathir's four-party coalition called Pakatan Harapan. Anger among non-Malays in 2013 prompted Mr Najib's coalition to lose the popular vote for the first time in 44 years.

In Peninsular Malaysia, Pakatan Harapan is set to win 43.4 per cent of the popular vote compared with 37.3 per cent for Barisan Nasional, according to the latest poll by Merdeka Center. Another survey by Institut Darul Ehsan, a think tank run by the opposition-held state of Selangor, showed 57 per cent of Malay respondents saying they preferred Dr Mahathir as prime minister over Mr Najib.

Yet the "Mahathir factor" alone may not be enough for Pakatan Harapan to win over Malays. Ibrahim Suffian, the executive director of pollster Merdeka Center, which tracks voter sentiments, told a forum that while Barisan Nasional saw declining support levels among Malay voters over the past two weeks, it still maintains nearly a two-to-one advantage.

Dr Mahathir will need all the support he can get from Malays, which make up about 60 per cent of all voters.

"With Mahathir, Pakatan Harapan has come to a stage where it has never been before," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who recently stepped down as chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs to join Dr Mahathir's party. "For the first time, it has the support of the Malay population in a very big way."

Mr Najib has dismissed the notion that Malays would abandon him. "I can assure you there will be no Malay tsunami against the government," he said in April, according to the official Malaysia news agency Bernama.

Besides dealing with questions over 1MDB, he's faced complaints over rising living costs and brewing discontent with a goods and services tax introduced in 2015.

To win over the Malay base, he's pledged to introduce a law for Shariah-compliant property sales, help ethnic Malay farmers resolve their debts and ensure the same cost of goods for those living in East Malaysia as in Peninsular Malaysia.

Dr Mahathir, meanwhile, has vowed to replace the 6 per cent goods-and-services tax with levies on company profits and a sales tax - a move Mr Najib warns would add RM416 billion (S$140 billion) to the nation's debt. He also wants to impose a two-term limit on the prime minister, something that would have checked his own power back in the day. BLOOMBERG

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