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Opposition gains support in threat to Anwar in state polls

Perikatan Nasional chairman Muhyiddin Yassin says he is optimistic the coalition will 'fare even better' than the last general election in the upcoming state elections.

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Perikatan Nasional chairman and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, July 27, 2023. Photo: Reuters
Perikatan Nasional chairman and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kuala Lumpur, July 27, 2023. Photo: Reuters

The conservative Muslim opposition is confident of making gains against Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's government in upcoming state polls as it woos more of the country's majority Malays, its leader Muhyiddin Yassin said today.

Six of the thirteen states will hold elections on Aug 12 in what is seen as a referendum on Anwar's eight-month-old administration. Gains by the Muhyiddin-led opposition alliance could weaken the government and spook investors.

In an interview with Reuters today, Muhyiddin said his Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition, formed three years ago, has seen rising support since the 15th general election, in which it came a close second to Anwar's bloc.

"I am quite optimistic that we should fare even better," said Muhyiddin, who was the prime minister for 17 months between 2020 and 2021.

"We will be the party of choice for the Malays. They will trust us to fight for the cause to protect their interests and those of Islam."

Malaysia is a multi-racial, multi-faith country, with ethnic Malay Muslims accounting for over 60% of the population. Ethnic Indians and Chinese form sizeable minorities.

Bridget Welsh, a political analyst at the University of Nottingham Malaysia, said there has been an overall shift towards PN among Malay voters, though at least 30% remain undecided.

Welsh cited disillusionment with the once-popular Umno, higher living costs, and slowing economic growth under Anwar.

Mired in corruption scandals, the Umno party was defeated at the polls for the first time in Malaysia's history in 2018. But it managed to return to power as Anwar's coalition partner.

Muhyiddin said PN has also won over non-Malay voters, with recent surveys conducted by the coalition showing a "marked increase" in support from the ethnic Indian community.

He said the bloc can retain power in three of the six states and potentially even wrest control of the country's richest state and economic powerhouse, Selangor, which surrounds the country's capital Kuala Lumpur.

A win in Selangor is "doable", he said. The state has been under the control of Anwar's party for 15 years.

Anwar runs a progressive, multi-ethnic coalition that appeals to the country's minorities and urban Malays, while PN has proved to be popular among more traditional Malays and young voters.

The close results of last year's elections underlined the country's divisions, with authorities then warning of rising ethnic tensions on social media.

PN includes PAS – a religious party that espouses a strict interpretation of Islamic law and is the largest party in Parliament.

Muhyiddin acknowledged concerns over the country's conservative tilt and PAS' recent gains, and said the Islamic party would have to moderate its views to address the needs of all Malaysians if it wants to play a bigger role in national politics.