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Focus is on whether ex-PM Mahathir, 92, can lead opposition to victory in Malaysia

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad addresses supporters of the opposition alliance during a rally at a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur on May 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Attention is being focused on whether 92-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad will successfully lead the opposition alliance to victory in the May 9 Malaysian general election for the lower chamber.

The ruling bloc has lost public support because of Prime Minister Najib Razak's graft allegations and the public's dissatisfaction with ongoing inflation. In contrast, Mahathir is taking advantage of his high name recognition to help the opposition alliance gain growing support from the general public.

A head-to-head fight is continuing although observations are prevalent that the governing bloc is likely to win the election because of the demarcation of constituencies favorable to the ruling coalition.

On May 6, Mahathir delivered a speech as supporters for the opposition alliance chanted, "Reformasi (reform)! Reformasi!" during a rally at a soccer stadium on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.

Mahathir said he had never felt such a tidal wave of people demanding a transfer of power before, and emphasized that the opposition bloc would win the election as long as there is the power of citizens calling for changes. Even though he occasionally coughed, Mahathir energetically addressed his audience.

The rally began at 9 p.m., and high-ranking members of opposition parties who are joining hands to overthrow the Najib government appeared one after another to ask for support. The rally lasted until midnight.

However, the opposition alliance has not necessarily maintained unity. An Islamic party has broken away from the alliance because of policy differences. Yet, the alliance emphasized solidarity during the rally with the aim of achieving member parties' common goal.

Mahathir once accused opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of being homosexual and expelled him from the political world. Because of this, some supporters for the opposition bloc still have a grudge against Mahathir, who previously led the ruling coalition. However, Mahathir has pledged that he would give Anwar, who is currently serving a prison term after being convicted of his involvement in homosexual activities, the position of prime minister if the opposition bloc takes over the reins of government.

A 35-year-old woman who identified herself as Chrislind said she has high expectations for Mahathir, who she said is the only political figure capable of bringing about changes to the country, while acknowledging that he "may have made mistakes while he was in power."

Siah Kwong Liang, 37, who is of Chinese descent, said he has no choice but to choose between Najib and Mahathir if there is no other option.

Citizens of Chinese descent account for 25 percent of Malaysia's population. They are strongly opposed to the so-called "Bumiputera" policy in favor of Malays, and are believed to be instrumental in sharp increases in the number of votes opposition parties garnered in the past two general elections.

Najib is trying to keep Mahathir in check by utilizing an anti-fake news law that was passed before he dissolved the 222-seat lower chamber for the general election. Still, Najib faces an uphill battle with the opposition bloc because of the overwhelmingly high name recognition of Mahathir, who served as prime minister for 22 years.

The Malaysian economy is performing well, aided by the growth of the manufacturing sector and brisk exports, and high-rise buildings are under construction in many areas of Kuala Lumpur.

The World Bank forecasts that Malaysia will become a high-income country sometime between 2020 and 2024.

However, the situation drastically changes when one steps into the traditional market.

"If the current situation continues, I'll be forced to shut down my shop next year or the year after next," lamented a 35-year-old clothing store owner who identified herself as Ciwarais.

The monthly rent for her 10-squre-meter shop was raised from 1,800 ringgits, or roughly 50,000 yen, to 2,700 ringgits, or some 75,000 yen. Her food expenses and gasoline costs increased, forcing her to sell off her car.

According to the Malaysian Department of Statistics, the consumer price inflation rate stood at 3.7 percent in 2017, as compared with 2.1 percent a year earlier. The upward trend is expected to continue for now. A 6 percent sales tax that the Najib administration introduced in 2015 has dealt a serious blow to the livelihoods of city dwellers.

According to the U.N. Development Programme, only about 20 percent of Malaysians are middle class citizens. A majority of Malaysian people who are barely making ends meet are vulnerable to inflation.

The Najib government, which believes that the public's dissatisfaction with their livelihoods has led to a decline in the approval rating for his administration, has incorporated the expansion of a grant aid system for low-income earners and a raise in the minimum wage in its campaign pledge.

On the other hand, the opposition alliance has vowed to abolish the sales tax and introduce a new value-added tax.

As of May 1, Merdeka Center, an independent opinion research company, predicted that the governing coalition would gain 40.3 percent of votes in the election, 3 percentage points lower than the figure for the opposition alliance.

In the previous election in 2013, opposition parties gained more votes than the ruling bloc, but a transfer of power did not take place because of the electoral district demarcation that is favorable to the governing camp.

Ibrahim Suffian, head of the center, noted that residents of rural areas who have benefited from the government choose stability even if they have dissatisfaction with the administration, while opposition parties are gaining more support in urban areas. He then pointed out that a transfer of power will be unlikely unless opposition parties garner support from Malays in rural areas.

It is widely believed that the governing coalition will stay in power following the May 9 election. However, if the ruling bloc is to decrease its strength more sharply than in the previous election, Najib, who has been in power since 2009, could be held responsible for the loss.

(Japanese original by Aya Takeuchi, Jakarta Bureau)

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