Malaysia's leader has promised more cash handouts for the poor along with cheaper cars and homes, and vowed to take tougher steps to combat corruption as his long-ruling coalition seeks to fend off a resurgent alliance in upcoming national elections.
In a nationally televised address late Saturday, Prime Minister Najib Razak also offered improved transportation, education and health care in an election manifesto as he urged 13 million voters to stick to the National Front coalition, which has ruled since independence from Britain in 1957.
He promised his coalition would do better and warned that voting for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance would be akin to gambling away Malaysia's future.
"This mandate that I seek is about continuity and sustainability against disruption and stagnation, about moving forward versus regressing," Najib said. "We have to safeguard what we have already achieved. We cannot put at risk what we have, we cannot gamble away our future."
The National Front manifesto was unveiled three days after Najib dissolved Parliament, paving the way for a vote widely expected in the next few weeks. The Election Commission will meet Wednesday to set a polling date.
Anwar's People's Alliance currently holds slightly more than one-third of Parliament's seats after the National Front endured its worst electoral results ever in 2008 polls amid public complaints about corruption and racial discrimination.
Although the opposition has a strong chance at the polls, most analysts believe Najib's coalition will have the upper hand because of its support in predominantly rural constituencies that hold the key to a large number of Parliament's seats.
The opposition alliance, in a bid to break the National Front's hold on power, has also made generous promises to lower the cost of living, through cheaper cars and fuel and free university education. It also has vowed to create new jobs, raise incomes and curb long-entrenched problems, including corruption and racial discrimination, if it wins power.
"This election is a race to be more populist. It is about which coalition can promise to give more to Malaysians. It's setting a very unhealthy trend in Malaysian politics," said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank.
In the manifesto, Najib pledged to gradually raise an annual handout for millions of poor households from 500 ringgit ($164) to 1,200 ringgit ($392), build 1 million low-cost homes and lower car prices by up to 30 percent over the next five years.
He laid out the country's strong economic growth and said the government aims to woo 1.3 trillion ringgit ($425 billion) in investment by 2020 to create 3.3 million jobs. He promised to bolster the police force to fight crime, set up more specialist graft courts and improve transparency with public disclosure of government contracts.
Najib's government has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on financial handouts for students, low-income families and government employees in the last two years. The prime minister has also intensified efforts to win back support by abolishing security laws that were widely considered repressive.
"The National Front is trying to play catch up with us, but what the people want is not just more money. They want a real systemic reform in the economy. They want a cleaner and a fairer society," said opposition lawmaker Liew Chin Tong.