Malaysian Premier Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim on yesterday started 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 a two-week campaign that will be hard-fought.
Najib, wearing a traditional black cap, a blue Malay tunic and a sarong, handed in documents in his home area on the east coast, where hundreds of government and opposition supporters 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, told reporters.
Anwar leads a diverse three-party alliance that hopes to unseat a coalition controlled by the powerful United Malays National Organization (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.
However, ruling-coalition 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 multi-ethnic 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 who waved 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 personnel kept watch.
“Our present prime minister is doing marvelous work. He is doing a lot of good things for all the races and for all of society,” supporter V.R.S. Maniam said.
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, Anwar, a charismatic campaigner, joined the previously ineffectual opposition in a move credited with dramatically improving its fortunes.
Malaysians have feverishly awaited the election as speculation has mounted over a potential opposition win, which would mark the country’s first-ever regime change.
From the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur to the smallest villages, roadways are festooned in a riot of color from the flags of Malaysia’s many political parties.
Most political observers expect the ruling bloc to win with a reduced parliamentary majority, but some say the result is too close to call.
Najib’s office has announced he will skip a Southeast Asian summit next week in Brunei to focus on campaigning, becoming the first Malaysian leader to miss the annual gathering.