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Najib rallies Malaysia support base as opposition crumbles

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called on his party to stay united ahead of a potential election within months, urging members to avoid complacency even as the opposition descends further into disarray.

[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called on his party to stay united ahead of a potential election within months, urging members to avoid complacency even as the opposition descends further into disarray.

Surrounded by key lieutenants on stage at a 71st anniversary celebration of his United Malays National Organisation, the premier attacked detractors including former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, saying they will fail in their attempts to topple Umno.

"Unlike the opposition, we are one family and we strive for the same vision," Mr Najib told tens of thousands of supporters at a stadium near the capital Kuala Lumpur.

"We will defend the party even if we have to shed blood doing so."

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Mr Najib is striving to put behind him a political funding scandal that tainted much of his second term as premier.

The Barisan Nasional coalition led by Umno is seeking to extend 60 years of uninterrupted rule in elections that must be held by mid-2018. He's being helped by a group of opposition parties that are squabbling among themselves and have competed against each other in smaller polls.

The main Islamic opposition party known as PAS had already shown interest in backing Mr Najib on some policies. On Thursday, Mr Najib received a further boost after PAS said it will sever ties with its opposition ally the People's Justice Party. That increases the odds of multi-cornered fights at the next polls, a move that would benefit Umno politicians.

'Fragile Opposition'

"Umno is at the moment not at the strongest position" because of the funding scandals and some internal conflicts over the past two years, said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, an associate professor at Universiti Utara Malaysia. 

"However, the opposition is also weak due to infighting," he said.

"To make things worse, PAS has also severed its ties with other opposition parties, thus weakening even further the fragile opposition pact."

The opposition has failed to capitalise on gains made in 2013, when it won the popular vote for the first time. Mr Najib was returned to office despite Barisan Nasional putting in its worst performance yet, helped by his power base of ethnic Malays.

Mr Najib and his wife entered the Bukit Jalil arena to cheers from a flag-waving crowd. Throughout the day, roads to the stadium were choked with buses ferrying grassroots leaders and supporters from around the country.

Umno has for decades propagated policies that provide favourable access to education, jobs and housing for Malays and indigenous people, known collectively as Bumiputeras, who make up the majority of the population. 

The opposition has sought to lure Malays discontented at living costs and disillusioned over allegations of graft surrounding Mr Najib. Inflation was at an eight-year high in March, while consumer sentiment has been below the level of optimism since mid-2014.

In the 2017 budget unveiled last year, Mr Najib allocated more funds for a programme that hands out cash to the poorest 40 per cent of Malaysians. About 7.28 million households with a monthly income of less than RM3,000 (S$972) received assistance last year.

Mr Najib needs votes in rural and semi-urban areas to retain power. Siti Zabedah I-min, who travelled overnight from her hometown of Padang Besar in the northernmost state of Perlis to attend Thursday's celebrations, said she is grateful to the premier for his efforts to improve the lives of farmers - many of them Malays.

Siti Zabedah is a settler under a government agency known as Felda, which was formed in 1956 with World Bank funding to help steer the rural poor out of poverty by providing them with land to plant. They are backbone voters in over 50 districts, according to the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.

"The government has taken a lot of steps to reach to important groups of people that can swing the votes in the coming election," said Ahmad Martadha.

"The government has also increased the amount of subsidies to the poor, especially in regards to financial subsidies."

With four children making ends meet as lorry drivers and clerks, Siti Zabedah said she grapples with living costs, but she doesn't blame the government.

"It's the market, it goes up and down, so what can Najib do?" she said. "It's no one's fault."