HANOI • The cost of living is a key concern among Malaysian voters, according to a member of Prime Minister Najib Razak's Cabinet, and it is set to be a major campaign topic in polls expected within months.
There is a "general expectation" among the public that elections will be held this year, Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed said in an interview last Friday in Hanoi, adding that it is up to Datuk Seri Najib to decide the "best moment to strike".
The ruling coalition has been working hard to improve communications with voters even as it has been aided by a divided opposition.
The Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Mr Najib's party, is seeking to extend 60 years of uninterrupted rule in a ballot that must be held by the middle of next year.
The opposition is looking to play up discontentment over living costs ahead of the vote, having failed in smaller elections to get traction from a controversy over the finances of a troubled state fund and allegations of graft surrounding Mr Najib.
Inflation reached an eight-year high in March before easing last month, while consumer sentiment has been below the level of optimism since mid-2014. "People are worried that the dollar is not stretching as far as it used to," Datuk Seri Mustapa said. "People remain unhappy about GST," he said, referring to a consumption tax implemented two years ago.
While there's no backtracking on the 6 per cent goods and services tax, there's better understanding of what the levy is and why the country needs it, Mr Mustapa said. Mr Najib has called the GST a "saviour" of government finances as oil prices plunged.
Things are looking up for the Malaysian economy with a report last Friday showing that growth in the last quarter was at the fastest pace in two years.
The ringgit has climbed more than 3 per cent against the US dollar this year, after depreciating almost 8 per cent in the last quarter of last year.
At Umno's 71st anniversary celebration this month, Mr Najib called on the party to stay united and urged members to avoid complacency even as the opposition descends further into disarray.
The opposition has failed to capitalise on gains made in 2013, when it won the popular vote for the first time.
There has been infighting and the severing of ties between some parties, increasing the odds of multi-cornered fights at the next elections, which would benefit Umno politicians.
"We cannot underestimate them," Mr Mustapa said of the opposition, adding it was a lesson they had learnt from 2013. Still, "there appears to be divisions. They are not as united as we are".
The main Islamist opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), has already shown interest in backing Mr Najib on some policies. He received a further boost this month after PAS said it will sever ties with its opposition ally Parti Keadilan Rakyat.
Mr Mustapa is the Umno chief for Kelantan, a state controlled by PAS. "At this point in time, we don't foresee an alliance in the same way that we are Barisan Nasional. I don't see PAS being a big part of Barisan Nasional," he said.