KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysians began voting on Wednesday in what is likely to be the country’s closest-fought general election, with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition pitted against a resurgent opposition steered by 92-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad.
Najib’s long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) is expected to win despite an election-eve opinion poll suggesting that its support was slipping and that Mahathir’s alliance would land more votes in peninsular Malaysia, home to 80 percent of the population.
Under Malaysia’s first-past-the-post system, the party or alliance with the majority of seats in the 222-member parliament wins. Most experts believe that is within Najib’s reach despite popular anger over a multi-billion-dollar graft scandal that has dogged him since 2015 and increased costs of living.
“I think right now, it looks more favorable to BN, as they are able to pull in most of east Malaysia,” said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, a Malaysia scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “However, the margin that we’re talking about is very small.”
Polling stations for the 14.9 million registered voters opened at 8:00 a.m. and will close at 5:00 p.m. Most results are expected to come in before midnight but the count may spill into the early hours of Thursday.
“This is a big day for Malaysia as this is when we decide our future,” said Dr. Hasri Samion, a 57-year-old cardiologist.
“I think the people have been complacent for too long. We need someone who is capable of running this country. We need a visionary to lead Malaysia.”
The survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center showed BN’s estimated share of the popular vote had slipped to 37.3 percent in peninsular Malaysia from 40.3 percent one week earlier. The share of Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) was at 43.4 percent, but it had also slipped slightly.
Merdeka said BN looked set to win 100 constituencies nationwide and the opposition 83. With these numbers, neither camp would have the 112 seats required to rule and the result will hinge on 37 seats that the pollster said were too close to call.
At the last election in 2013, BN lost the majority vote in its worst performance ever, but pulled in 133 seats.
Unless he improves on that tally, Najib could come under pressure within his United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party to stand aside ahead of the next election, analysts say.
“I am loyal to BN and to UMNO,” said Sri Nuraini, a housewife casting her vote in central Kuala Lumpur. “They helped build this country to what it is now. I respect Mahathir … and I admire what he’s doing. But he’s old. Why do we want to change government when they have done so much for us?”
Najib made a last-ditch appeal for votes on Tuesday night aimed at the young and the country’s Malay Muslim majority.
The prime minister said people aged 26 and below would no longer pay income tax if BN won. He also pledged to add two public holidays when the Islamic holy month of Ramadan starts next week and said toll roads would be free for five days around the start of the Eid festival, which marks the end of the month.
Speaking at the same time, Mahathir urged voters not to fall for “bribes.”
“Don’t let a bit of money make you pawn the country forever,” he said.
Nawab, the scholar, said there was a small chance that neither BN nor the opposition secures a majority, which would bring a “hung Parliament” and potentially put the Islamic Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) in the position of kingmaker.
However, political analysts believe PAS will fall short of the 21 seats it won in 2013. The Merdeka poll had it winning just two seats.
Mahathir’s opposition, which counts on urban votes and support from the minority ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, is hoping that with the long-ruling former leader as its standard bearer, it will draw in Malay voters traditionally loyal to BN.
However, Mahathir is a polarizing figure and many voters are suspicious of him because of his attacks on independent institutions when he was prime minister between 1981 and 2003.
Najib’s other formidable opponent is former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, who is currently serving a five-year prison sentence on a sodomy conviction that has been attacked by human rights groups as politically motivated.
Anwar led the opposition in the 2008 and 2013 polls. In an unlikely reconciliation, he has joined hands with Mahathir, who sacked him as his deputy in 1998.
In Najib’s favor, ethnic Malays support BN for affirmative-action policies that give them government contracts, cheap housing and guaranteed university admissions.
Also, the economy is growing at around 5 percent, buoyed by robust exports and infrastructure spending.
But Najib, 64, has been buffeted by a scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund from which billions of dollars were allegedly siphoned off. The prime minister, who was chairman of 1MDB’s advisory board, has denied any wrongdoing and he has been cleared of any offense by the attorney general.