Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Malaysia’s long-dominant ruling party has launched a last-minute campaign offensive centered on mosques, malls and parking lots across the capital area, now less than 48 hours before entering the electoral fight for its life.
Prime Minister Najib Razak rallied supporter in Selangor state's Taman Puchong Permai, a middle-class township outside Kuala Lumpur, on Friday to announce a raft of big-ticket projects and stump for candidates in the opposition-held state which also happens to be the richest in the country.
Such an impromptu whistle-stop, in this case at a car park-turned-political carnival between a rundown housing complex and a mosque, would have been unthinkable during most of the Barisan Nasional coalition’s tight 56-year grip on power.
On this day, however, there was urgency in the air. “The last four years, the people of Selangor have been miserable. We never give you an empty promise,” Najib told a crowd of roughly 1,500 supporters.
“Don’t let the opposition cheat you again. Like Mohammed said in the Quran, ‘Don’t let the snake bite you twice’.
Barisan is scrambling to claw back territory, such as Selangor, which was among the five states lost to the Pakatan Rakyat coalition in 2008, although one later reverted back. Experts say anything less than a thumping victory in Sunday’s polls could cost Najib his job, a political fate faced by his predecessor Abdullah Badawi.
A poll released on Friday by the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research found that 42 percent of respondents felt Pakatan should be given a chance to run the government. Forty-one percent said the BN is the only group that could govern the country. Prevailing opinion is that the elections are too close to call.
“For the first time since 1955 - elections were started two years before independence - the result of the vote is not a foregone conclusion. It’s close, tough, competitive and intense,” said Clive Kessler, emeritus professor and Malaysia expert at the University of New South Wales. “Nobody knows what the result is going to be.”
There was no such uncertainty at the rally in Puchong Permai. Spectators crowded balconies, benches and shop fronts amid Barisan’s royal blue bunting. Loudspeakers blared nationalist songs, vendors provided the latest Barisan gear, and a mobile medical clinic was on hand to give free blood tests.
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When Najib arrived, right on schedule, he was genuinely mobbed with affection as he strode straight through the crowd to the local mosque for a pre-speech prayer.
“You don’t just get to see the [PM] anywhere. He’s dropping by and it means a lot to us,” said Sri Thevi, 27, an account supervisor in Kuala Lumpur. “I’m here to support BN. They have improved the country slowly, but it’s better than throwing out your word and not doing anything. What he says he will fulfill. This time the BN is going to rule again.”
Earlier that day, Najib had unveiled three new projects in Selangor state, according to The Malaysia Insider, a market, hospital and district police headquarters.
One of the three Barisan candidates for Selangor was on hand to make sure the promise of improved governance was not lost on the crowd.
“The first thing in our campaign is affordable housing. The BN government has pledged one million affordable housing units in Malaysia, with 25,000 of those in Selangor. The second is to reduce the crime rate in this area. Street crime has been reduced but it can be dropped further,” said A Kohilan Pillay, 46, the incumbent deputy foreign minister who is now standing in state elections.
“Having the prime minister here is extra momentum to work even harder. I am very confident about BN in the elections because voters want stability and peace,” Pillay said.
After Puchong Permai, Najib was scheduled for a string of rallies ending up at a stadium in the capital. The frenzied pace reflects the ticking clock until the elections, and Barisan has been just as active in other areas.
The close race and the successes of the opposition have them [Barisan] playing catch-up.
The government-influenced media has kept up a string of anti-opposition reports, and coalition leaders have publically reiterated Najib’s warnings of the economic impact of an opposition takeover.
Former prime minister Mahatir Mohamed, the political doyen of Barisan, as recently as last week repeated the sex scandal accusations about opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
In a rally for rural supporters, one of BN’s member parties distributed leaflets about a potential “Chinese takeover” of the country.
Scare tactics such as these have Kessler convinced that Barisan is worried. “The close race and the successes of the opposition have them playing catch-up. They are used to campaigning from a position of strength, and I’m not sure they are good at figuring what they have to do now,” Kessler told Al Jazeera.
Even so, Najib's approval ratings last month were about 60 percent, according to Merdeka, and his outpouring of largesse, in key places like Selangor, seems only to be escalating ahead of Sunday’s vote.
Back at the Selangor rally, a 40-year-old nurse who gave her name as Mages stood aside from the crowd manning the blood clinic. In the background, Najib was pictured on a massive pink billboard advertising free mammograms.
Asked if the barrage of health care spending and high-level attention would get people to vote for Barisan, she looked at her feet.
“Maybe,” Mages said. “We’ll know on Sunday.”