AT POLITICAL rallies the hungry have been enjoying exotic fare—guavas, macaroons, avocado juice—as they gather on a sticky night in Johor, a southern state that is a battleground between the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH). They all want to hear Mahathir Mohamad. “I follow him everywhere!” chirps a local cleaner. “Whatever he does, whatever he says, we support him,” gushes a group of students. Dr Mahathir, a former prime minister who is 92, now leads PH, although he once ran Malaysia on behalf of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has been in power for more than six decades and is the BN coalition’s main party. Whether he can persuade voters to switch allegiance on polling day, May 9th, hangs in the balance.

The election is for the 222-seat parliament and for 12 of the 13 states’ assemblies. Two-thirds of seats are reckoned to be tight contests, up from about half in the previous election in 2013. The current prime minister, Najib Razak, says it will be “the mother of all elections”. He is probably less popular than any other Malaysian leader has been just before an election. Dr Mahathir expects it to be the “dirtiest” ever.

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Racial politics will prevail. About 69% of the population of 32m are Malay or belong to other indigenous groups known as bumiputra (“sons of the soil”). About 24% are ethnic Chinese and 7% Indian. The bumiputra favour UMNO because a system of racial rules it created in the 1970s gives them handouts and preferential access to universities and government jobs. These preferences were initially described as temporary but have become impossible to abolish. They win votes: at the last election 64% of Malays voted for UMNO, while 80% of ethnic Chinese backed the opposition.

Freebies and quotas may matter more to Malays than anything else. Since the last election journalists have revealed that a stunning $4.5bn disappeared from a state development fund, while almost $700m entered Mr Najib’s personal bank account. He denies any wrongdoing, saying the money was a gift, eventually returned, from an unnamed Saudi prince. The scandal seems scarcely to bother voters. Dr Mahathir blasts corruption, though he did not exactly stamp it out while in power.

Voters worry more about the cost of living, even though the economy has grown robustly in recent years. Housing and fuel costs, creeping inflation through much of last year and an unpopular goods-and-services tax of 6% introduced since the last election all irk them. The price of kembong—Indian mackerel, a staple—is more than twice what it was three years ago. Mr Najib says the country must stick with the GST since it brought in 45bn ringgit ($10.5bn) last year; the opposition says it would replace it with an alternative. Mr Najib has offered big voting groups, such as civil servants, billions of ringgit in bonuses and other goodies to soothe them.

Mr Najib has been crafty, too. His government has gerrymandered electoral boundaries to enhance the BN’s chances. Opposition voters in the Malayan peninsula can find themselves packed into constituencies of more than 100,000 people. Government loyalists are typically in far smaller ones of fewer than 30,000. And just before parliament was dissolved, it passed a bill against “fake news” that could criminalise criticism of the government during the campaign if a court finds it contains errors.

Shenanigans over the registration of parties have affected both sides. Dr Mahathir founded his own party, Bersatu, in 2016. Last month the Registrar of Societies, a government agency, temporarily halted its activities, saying it had not provided the proper paperwork. Bersatu sued the agency and persuaded the court to block the suspension on April 23rd. Meanwhile 16 members of UMNO sought to declare their own party illegal because it had failed in recent years to hold internal elections for the leadership; a similar case saw an earlier incarnation of UMNO dissolved in 1987—on Dr Mahathir’s watch.

The government must reverse a trend of dipping support if it is to win again. A decade ago BN lost its two-thirds majority in parliament; at the election in 2013 it lost the popular vote too. This time around, the ruling coalition has cosied up to an erstwhile foe, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which has long denounced UMNO. PAS governs the poor rural state of Kelantan and wants to impose more caning and other traditional Islamic punishments. It says it will run candidates in 158 seats; the ensuing three-way fights could split the opposition vote in BN’s favour. The government may also be boosted by wrangling within PH. Anwar Ibrahim, a PH leader now in prison on flimsy evidence for sodomy, once led the opposition to Dr Mahathir, who had him jailed. Disagreements between such new allies may hamstring PH.

The tricks and traps of the electoral system disgust many Malaysians. Youngsters are particularly appalled by the dirty horse-trading. Both sides are trying hard to woo them, for the simple reason that Malaysians aged between 21 and 40 make up more than two in five of the almost 15m eligible to vote. “Rebranding is a must for UMNO,” admits Azril Sarit, a youth chief for the party in the state of Pahang. A PH counterpart in Johor says he arranges talks in 24-hour eateries and on Facebook Live to bring young people over to Dr Mahathir’s side. “Only we can provide a new alternative to the Malays,” he reckons.

Turnout may be crucial. Dr Mahathir reckons that if 80% vote, that could tip the contest in favour of his PH coalition. But the short campaign and a mid-week election may discourage a surge to the polls. Last-minute legal, bureaucratic or logistical obstacles may yet hurt his lot. So could irregularities at polling stations. Salleh Said Keruak, the government minister for communications, says Dr Mahathir is warning of foul play only because he knows he will lose. But the government’s devious election ploys suggest failure may have crossed Mr Najib’s mind too.

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