Malaysian political candidates made their final pitches Friday on the eve of national elections in an attempt to win over a divided electorate worried about the economy, rising costs of living and political turmoil that resulted in three prime ministers since the last polls in 2018.
Saturday's election is seen as a tight race among three main blocs, with the country's longest-ruling coalition seeking a comeback after an unthinkable defeat in 2018. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is hoping for a second surprise victory for his alliance as he pursues a two-decade quest to become prime minister. A third Malay-based bloc, seen as a dark horse, has played up religious rhetoric as it seeks to woo Malay votes.
Many polls have put Anwar’s bloc in the lead, but short of winning a majority. That would mean a hung Parliament that could see new alliances formed after the election. But at least two other polls have predicted a win for the United Malays National Organization-led Barisan Nasional, or National Front.
Voter apathy and the addition of some 6 million mostly young voters since the last national elections are adding to uncertainties in the tight race.
Anwar, 75, was in prison on a sodomy charge that critics say was trumped up when his Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope, won in 2018, leading to the first regime change since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led the alliance's campaign and became the world's oldest leader at 92 with an agreement to hand over power to Anwar. But their government collapsed after just 22 months due to defections that brought UMNO back to power as part of a shaky new coalition.
The stakes are high for Anwar, who is contesting a new federal seat in Tambun in northern Perak state in a calculated gamble to showcase his alliance's strength. He has crisscrossed the country at least twice in the campaign, often attracting large crowds with his message of change and his oratory skills.
He focused the last leg of his campaign on Perak, where he played badminton with young people at a sports center on Friday and reminded them to vote. Anwar then stumped for his bloc's candidate at a Perak constituency contested by corruption-tainted UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi before praying at a local mosque.
“It is high time for change to correct all the flaws that have become the culture of governance in Malaysia,” Anwar said on Facebook.
Initially confident of a victory due to a fragmented opposition, UMNO leader Zahid had pushed incumbent caretaker Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to call early polls despite the risk of floods due to seasonal monsoon rains. But the UMNO campaign has been relatively muted and hampered by infighting.
The opposition has warned that a UMNO victory would result in Zahid, who is fighting dozens of graft charges, taking over as prime minister and escaping the corruption allegations. Zahid has dropped eight party leaders aligned to Ismail from the polls, but he and UMNO leaders insist Ismail remains the party's candidate.
UMNO presidents traditionally become prime minister but Ismail, a lower-tier party leader seen as a Malay nationalist, broke the trend by not leading the party. Ismail held walkabouts and met various groups in his constituency on Friday to urge them to vote for stability and prosperity under his coalition.
The Malay-based National Alliance, an UMNO ally turned rival, ran a sleek campaign to woo over UMNO supporters. It is headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, who defected from Mahathir's government in early 2020, causing its collapse. Muhyiddin became prime minister under a tieup with UMNO but resigned after 17 months due to infighting. Anwar's supporters have accused Muhyiddin and leaders of his Islamic ally of hate speech against ethnic minority groups in their bid to win Malay votes.
Mahathir, 97, is also seeking support under a new Malay movement that isn't expected to make much headway but may split the vote. His popularity has faded, but that hasn't stopped him from issuing daily statements on social media warning Malaysians not to vote back a corrupt government. The elections are likely to be the last for Mahathir, who held a final rally in his constituency on the resort island of Langkawi.