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Malaysia's leader holds party congress ahead of elections

Updated On: Dec 05, 2012

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak urged members of his party to embrace a changing demographic as his ruling coalition held a week long congress in the capital this week.

The congress comes ahead of looming general elections, which must be held by June next year. The poll will see Mr Najib pit against opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and is expected to be the most competitive in Malaysian history.

The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition suffered its greatest defeat in its 55 year rule in 2008 when it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority along with five state governments. Over the past four years many urban voters and minority ethnic Chinese have deserted the BN, giving the opposition a chance, albeit slim, of winning power.

Most analysts believe that the BN will prevail in the polls, however even if it wins, its powers could be curtailed if the opposition improves on its 2008 electoral score.

To win over voters, Mr Najib has cast the opposition as a threat to economic growth and political stability. While urging Malaysians not to experiment with the future of the country, Najib has worked hard to portray its coalition as an unnatural alliance between Islamic fundamentalists and multi-ethnic and liberal parties that would fall apart if they came to power. Early in the year, he also rolled back security laws, media rules and taken steps to end pro-Malay policies that have been a trademark of the ruling party since independence.

On his part, Mr. Anwar has accused BN of failing to lifted the country's ethnic Malay Muslim majority from poverty after years of affirmative action, which has stifled competition and productivity.

As with previous elections, race is an issue at the core of the elections, with Malaysia's parties divided over whether race based preferences for Malay Muslims in jobs, universties and business are outdated or are still needed to curtail racial and religious tensions.

Over the year, speculation on the date the government would call elections was rife. However, Mr. Najib's apparent indecisiveness over the election date has dampended the element of surprise for his coalition.

"It's a huge advantage and he hasn't been able to play it; now it's so late the advantage has gone," said Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

However, the largest threat to Mr. Najib's reelection could come from his party itself, given that a majority in the ethnic Malay party still don't understand or accept the new reality that has led Mr. Najib to push for reforms.

Report: Anwar challenges Malaysian Prime Minister Najib to public debate [CNA, 3 December 2012]

Report: Malaysia's Leader Rallies Party for Elections He Must Win Big [WSJ, December 2, 2012]

Report: Malaysia PM uses Romney defeat to warn divided party [Reuters, 2 December 2012]