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Malaysia prepares for tightest election race
Jim Middleton speaks with Ben Suffian, the Program Director of the Merdeka Centre in Kuala Lumpur, an opinion research firm that's monitoring voting in the Malaysian elections.

All the polls indicate this will be a very tight race.

Ben Suffian is program director of the Merdeka Centre in Kuala Lumpur, an opinion research firm that is also monitoring voting in the Malaysian elections.
BEN SUFFIAN, PROGRAM DIRECTOR, MERDEKA CENTRE: It's looking very, very interesting, Jim. We are a week away, we are conducting some polling with voters here in the western part of the country. And it's looking more and more that we are going to have a very close result between the truly ruling party and that of the opposition. The numbers seem to be moving slightly in favour of the opposition, particularly among younger voters.

JIM MIDDLETON: Why do you think that might be?

BEN SUFFIAN: I think it has something to do with the line-up of the leadership, that the opposition has put on offer, the candidates list, as well as the issue they're bringing into the campaign. They're talking more about cost of living issues, pocketbook issues, practical problems that the people face each day.

JIM MIDDLETON: So if the opposition is to have a chance of winning, does the polling your doing indicate that it is making inroads in Barisan Nasional's strongholds, places like Sabah, Sarawak and Johor?

BEN SUFFIAN: Well we are getting mixed results there. They're, I think, making more progress in the southern parts of the peninsula - in Negeri Sembilan, in Malacca, in Johor - as compared to Sarawak.

In Sarawak, the numbers seem 20 show they're strong many urban centres but they are having difficulty penetrating into the more rural heartland of the country. In Sabah, they are also experiencing the same thing and the local politics there I think is preventing them from making large gains.

JIM MIDDLETON: If the opposition is to win this election, it needs to pick up something like 40 seats. In the polling that you're doing and other available evidence, are they making sufficient ground up to do that?

BEN SUFFIAN: They have the potential to do so. The reason is because the sheer size of the young electorate in this particular election is giving them the advantage and allowing them to make inroads in areas that hitherto were not possible.

JIM MIDDLETON: What are the issues then that are going to determine this election? Is it leadership? Is it the personalities of Anwar Ibrahim and Najib Razak or are there other substantive issues that are going to change people's votes?

BEN SUFFIAN: The polling that we are doing right now and have been so in the past, indicates that people want to see their ordinary problems being resolved. The three immediate problems are cost of live, crime and that of corruption that they're experiencing whether in business or in daily life are the things that they wants to see the government fix in the short term.

Unfortunately these are not the issues being discussed by the ruling government's campaign. But the opposition is taking full advantage and talking about their economic proposals in their campaigns with the people.

JIM MIDDLETON: There has been considerable concern about the state of the electoral roles. Do you think it's sufficiently suspect to undermine the credibility of the result on Sunday?

BEN SUFFIAN: It is possible.

In my own capacity in the Merdeka Centre research, we have been looking into the electoral roll, we have done some ground surveys and we have found that there are areas, specific area, not widespread, but specific areas there are in accuracies with the electoral roll that may affect the outcome of those votes, which may affect who holds the key states in the country.

JIM MIDDLETON: In the lead-up to this election the government has made very large handouts to very carefully targeted groups of voters. What effect is that having on voting intentions? Is it actually succeeding in building up or shoring up support for Barisan Nasional?

BEN SUFFIAN: Actually it had the effect of boosting support. We did detect a feel good factor favouring the ruling coalition during the time when the cash handouts were at its peak. That was around March of this year, tapering off into the mid-April period of our time here.

But the election is in May. So we suspect a lot of people have spent the cash and are now just looking ahead to vote. So there might be some lingering positive feelings, but it's decidedly less so than in March.

JIM MIDDLETON: To what extent has this been a contest between race and class, if I could put it that way, with Anwar appealing to voter's economic aspirations and Najib looking to win the election on the basis of people's racial affiliation?

BEN SUFFIAN: I think that is the colour of this election. We are seeing two very contrasting themes to this campaign. Because while Najib talks about one Malaysia and talks about the transformation he has initiated since taking power in 2009, the ground campaign conducted by local campaigners and local leaders decidedly have a very communal tone to their speeches and their rhetorics. On the other side you can also see a consistent message coming from the opposition talking about assisting the lower income, assisting people who are marginalised in society, giving them a leg up on the economic ladder.

There is a big difference in the theme. And in some sense it's a referendum in about the status quo in Malaysia, whether things continue to be based on race and communal interest.

JIM MIDDLETON: Wherever you go in the world, fear is a very useful campaign tactic. BN warning of violence and chaos should the opposition win the election. How effective is that proving as a campaign strategy?

BEN SUFFIAN: Interestingly we actually asked specifically this question and are looking at the data this morning. So far, yes, there is a layer of people that have considerable fear but they tend to be older respondents in our poll. Younger people are not looking at that. Younger people are looking at the campaign messages and the candidates that are on offer. So by and large we think that fear has less of an impact on this campaign compared to previous ones.

JIM MIDDLETON: Ben Suffian, thank you very much for your time.

BEN SUFFIAN: Thank you.
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