Rival camps in Malaysia’s general election are wavering between appearing bullish about their chances and warning voters of overconfidence as official campaigning reaches the halfway mark ahead of the May 9 vote.

Latest figures by the country’s leading pollster Merdeka Centre reflect the knife-edge nature of the vote, which pits Prime Minister Najib Razak’s long ruling Barisan Nasional coalition against the Pakatan Harapan bloc helmed by his former mentor and former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

The latest edition of the think tank’s multi-stage poll suggests a pitched battle for supremacy in the ruling bloc’s stronghold provinces of Kedah and Johor – both have large rural Malay populations – but federal power appears likely to remain in Najib’s hands.

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The battle for Kedah promises to be particularly heated, with some observers saying the emergence of Barisan Nasional grandee Daim Zainuddin as an opposition campaigner could tilt Malay support in Mahathir’s favour.

Daim, a Mahathir-era finance minister who remains in Barisan Nasional’s linchpin party the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), has said he is “fighting for justice for the people” and is unafraid of being taken to task by the party.

Daim’s open support for the opposition “gives the message that you don’t have to leave Umno to defeat Barisan Nasional,” said political observer Awang Azman Awang Pawi.

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Voters at campaign events held by both camps in Kuala Lumpur and the states of Selangor and Negeri Sembilan told This Week in Asia two key factors would determine their choice at the ballot box: whether or Najib or Mahathir should be premier, and the two camps’ respective economic policies.

‘MONEY CAN’T BUY SUPPORT’

On the ground, the premier cut a figure of composure and confidence.

In one event on Tuesday in the suburban precinct of Lembah Pantai outside Kuala Lumpur, held by the opposition since 2008, Najib’s bullish projection of a major swing in his coalition’s favour drew roars of approval.

“Why is she not here? She’s afraid. What she is afraid of? Afraid to lose!,” Najib told supporters at the event, referring to the incumbent MP Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of the jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

After two terms in the seat, Nurul Izzah is now running in her father’s former seat in the state of Penang.

That move away from Lembah Pantai came after a controversial redrawing of the electoral map added thousands of new voters – mainly police barracks dwellers – to the precinct, which observers say hands an advantage to the Barisan Nasional candidate Raja Nong Chik.

Campaigning in Titiwangsa, a Barisan Nasional seat now deemed marginal, the 92-year-old Mahathir appeared equally confident about his side’s chances.

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Mobbed by the crowd as he entered the rain soaked rally venue, the former premier quipped: “I’m sorry I couldn’t shake everyone’s hands as I walked to the podium … Unfortunately I have only two hands, not six.”

With the crowd chanting “Long Live Tun!” – referencing his honorific title – the opposition leader added: “Money cannot buy this support … even if the other side pays supporters to come to their events, their attendance won’t be as big as this.”

Observers and some opposition insiders say large crowds in opposition rallies may be projecting a skewed picture of the bloc’s support.

Charles Santiago, the incumbent MP for opposition-held Klang, said he sensed “some overconfidence among our supporters.”

“They see the large crowds in the ceramahs [rallies] and think victory is in the bag … but the extensive gerrymandering may provide a rude shock,” Santiago told This Week in Asia in his campaign operations centre.

BATTLEGROUND STATES

He said the opposition bloc needed a high turnout on polling for a chance to win power.

On Wednesday, leading election observers speaking at a seminar on the state of play at the midway mark of polls said the key battles to watch were Johor, the southern state bordering Singapore, the rice bowl state of Kedah, as well as the Bornean state of Sabah.

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A swing in Johor in favour of Mahathir’s bloc could tilt the national contest in his favour, and Ibrahim Suffian, Merdeka Centre’s director, said there were signs of that happening.

“Gains in [Johor Malay votes] have reached a point where they are getting closer to the threshold, but at this point [Barisan Nasional] will prevail,” Ibrahim said.

The pollster, however, said he did not yet have complete data on the state of play in the state.

Sabah expert Arnold Puyok said social media commentary about a Barisan Nasional revolt in the state was probably off the mark because multi-cornered fights in the state would preserve the ruling coalition’s stranglehold on power.

Shafie Apdal, a former Barisan Nasional stalwart, is leading a charge to seize the state – which has a mix of Malays and indigenous people such as the Kadazandusuns and Bajaus – from Barisan Nasional under the banner of the Parti Warisan Sabah.

The party is informally aligned with Mahathir’s opposition.

Shafie formed Warisan in 2016 after he was sacked by Najib for criticising the premier over his alleged involvement in the 1MDB corruption scandal.

Is Malaysia ready to move on from Najib’s one-man show?

In the last election, Najib’s first at the helm of Barisan Nasional after coming to power in 2009, the ruling bloc garnered won 133 out of 222 parliament seats.

It however lost the popular vote – winning 47.4 per cent of total votes cast.

Merdeka Centre’s latest poll of voters in some 75 per cent of seats showed as of May 1 Najib’s bloc would receive 40.3 per cent of the popular vote, down from 40.8 per cent on April 9.

In his presentation on Wednesday, Ibrahim said: “If elections were held yesterday, Barisan Nasional would still prevail.”