Najib and Anwar launch their election campaigns

Coalition and opposition leaders face closely fought contest, with incumbent on the defensive over corruption and divisive racial politics

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 April, 2013, 7:02am


Malaysian premier Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim yesterday kicked off their rival campaigns for the May 5 elections likely to be the country's closest ever.

The two competitors joined hundreds of parliamentary candidates across the nation in submitting nomination papers in their respective constituencies, marking the start of what will be a hard-fought two-week battle. Najib, wearing a traditional black cap, a blue Malay tunic and a sarong, handed in his documents in his home area on the east coast, where hundreds of government and opposition supporters had gathered.

"I am confident that the [ruling coalition] team contesting will transform Malaysia to greater heights," the 59-year-old said on his Twitter feed.

Anwar registered in the northern state of Penang as hundreds of supporters shouted the opposition battle cry " Reformasi!" (reform).

"The next two weeks are going to be a tough tumble, especially for the opposition but, God willing, we can manage," Anwar, also in traditional garb, said.

Anwar leads a diverse three-party alliance that hopes to unseat a coalition controlled by the powerful United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which has dominated Malaysia since independence in 1957.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) alliance aims to build on momentum from 2008 elections in which it tripled its seats in parliament, taking a third of a chamber long under the grip of Umno and its allies.

Under Umno's Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, resource-rich Malaysia developed into a prosperous Southeast Asian economy. But support has ebbed amid voter impatience with corruption, rising crime and living costs, and Barisan's use of authoritarian tactics and divisive racial politics.

Most of Malaysia's 29 million people are moderate-Muslim ethnic Malays who enjoy political supremacy and economic advantages over sizeable Chinese, Indian, and other minorities.

"[Barisan Nasional] is so corrupt. We want Malaysia to have a good government," said Zakaria Hashim, a factory worker waving the flag of Anwar's party outside the nomination centre in his Permatang Pauh constituency.

A nearby crowd of government supporters wearing Barisan blue chanted "Long Live Barisan!" as security staff watched.

"Our present prime minister is doing marvellous work. He is doing a lot of good things for all the races and for all of society," said one supporter.

Najib took over in 2009 when his predecessor quit under pressure over the election setback the year before, and has sought to project a reformist image to win back voters. He calls the opposition fractious and inexperienced and says it would lead the country to economic ruin.

A former top Umno official, Anwar seemed destined for power until a 1998 rift with his then-boss, hardline leader Mahathir Mohamad, led to Anwar's sacking and six-year jailing on sodomy and corruption charges widely viewed as politically motivated. After his 2004 release, he joined the previously ineffectual opposition, which dramatically improved its fortunes.

An opposition win would mark the country's first-ever regime change.