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Malaysians vote in toughest election yet for ruling coalition

Reuters KUALA LUMPUR | Updated on May 09, 2018 Published on May 09, 2018

People line up to vote during the general election in Alor Setar, Malaysia.   -  Reuters

Politicians say phones jammed

Malaysians voted on Wednesday in a cliffhanger general election in which Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition is fending off a resurgent opposition led by 92-year-old former leader Mahathir Mohamad, but is expected to squeak through to victory.

Several opposition alliance leaders and two ruling party politicians claimed their communications were being disrupted by non-stop spam calls on their mobile phones as voting progressed. “We have lost contact with all of our polling agents,” said Lim Guan Eng, a senior leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party. “Our campaign workers are also affected. This is a dirty tech attack on us, we have been paralysed.”

In a tweet, Najib condemned the “tactic of spam calls” from international numbers received by his camp's leaders and said websites of his Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance could not be accessed. He said he had ordered immediate action to be taken.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak of Barisan Nasional (National Front) looks at his ballot before casting it, at a polling station during Malaysia's general election in Pekan, Pahang, Malaysia.   -  Reuters

The country's communications regulator had no immediate comment on the complaints and officials from the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) alliance did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Najib's BN is expected to win despite an election-eve opinion poll suggesting that its support was slipping and that Mahathir's Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) would land more votes in peninsular Malaysia, home to 80 per cent 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 favourable to BN ... however, the margin that we're talking about is very small,” said Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman, a Malaysia scholar at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Polling stations for the 14.9 million registered voters opened at 8:00 am (0000 GMT) and will close at 5:00 pm (0900 GMT). The Election Commission said that after two hours of voting the turnout had been 24 per cent. Most results are expected before midnight (1600 GMT) 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 cardiologist Hasri Samion at a polling station in central Kuala Lumpur. “I think the people have been complacent for too long. We need a visionary to lead Malaysia.” Najib, casting his vote, said he was confident of victory following what he described as “quite vicious” personal attacks during the campaign.

Politicians claim tech sabotage

Malaysian politicians from both government and opposition camps complained of “dirty tricks” after voting began, as non-stop spam calls to their mobile phones disrupted communications with party organisers. Malaysian civil rights group Suaram said the spam calls, which have also affected civil society group leaders, was a “clear attempt to impede the work of human rights defenders and politicians at the critical juncture of voting day”.

While the complaints came from all sides, none of the political figures whose phones had been targeted specified who they suspected was behind the attack.

Some leaders from the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition said they had switched off their phones after receiving automated calls nearly every minute from mostly unknown overseas numbers, since before polling stations opened. “This is a dirty tech attack on us, we have been paralysed. We cannot talk to anyone... they are trying to sabotage the electoral system to deny a PH win,” said Lim Guan Eng, a senior opposition leader. “The telcos must do something. We can complain to the authorities, but what can they do now?” Lim said.

A minister in Najib's government said his phone had also received multiple calls from unknown numbers from the United States, the UK and Malaysia, while another ruling coalition leader posted a video on twitter showing a phone receiving call after call.

Azmin Ali, the chief minister of the opposition-held state of Selangor, said he left his mobile phone in his car when he went out to vote as he was getting continuous calls and junk emails. “They are desperate, so they are using all sorts of tactics to jam us. But at the end of the day, it's people's power,” he told reporters after casting his vote.

Khairy Jamaluddin, the sports minister and youth wing leader of the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), which leads the ruling coalition, was among the leaders from the government side that said they had been targeted too. “My phone seems to be under some sort of spam attack this morning,” said Khairy, displaying on his Twitter account a screenshot of a list of calls received. “Strange.”

Abdul Rahman Dahlan, a ruling coalition leader, posted a video showing a phone receiving endless calls. “Calls from overseas keep coming in every few seconds! To prevent us from communicating with our machinery. This is dirty trick!” he said in a Twitter post.

Reuters reported in April that automated accounts known as bots were flooding Twitter with tens of thousands of pro-government and anti-opposition messages, just weeks before the general election. A survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center showed BN has seen a drop in its share of the popular vote, but was still expected to win enough parliamentary seats to retain power.

Too close to call

The survey by independent pollster Merdeka Center 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 Organisation (UMNO) party to stand aside ahead of the next election, analysts say.

Najib made a last-ditch appeal for votes on Tuesday night, including to his core support base, the majority Muslim Malays. 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.

Polarising figure

Mahathir's opposition alliance, 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 polarising 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 favour, ethnic Malays support BN for affirmative-action policies that give them government contracts, cheap housing and guaranteed university admissions. 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 offence by the attorney general.

Published on May 09, 2018
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