FROM placating an electorate strung tight on economic hardships to facing his biggest critic Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister Najib Razak is up against considerable challenges despite his apparent confidence in a victory in the 14th general elections, the South China Morning Post said today.

With just over 100 days before the Barisan Nasional’s five-year-term ends, Najib’s reluctance to call for a vote likely stems from the defection of Dr Mahathir, his 92-year-old former mentor, to Pakatan Harapan, said the newspaper.

Dr Mahathir, who left Umno in protest of Najib’s alleged involvement in the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal, has the support of a significant number of rural Malays on top of the 22 years of leadership experience under his belt.

Apart from fending off Dr Mahathir, Najib’s battle in GE14 will be hard fought over three main issues – the economy, the support of ethnic Chinese voters, and the allegiance of Sabah and Sarawak.

While Najib’s administration has proudly lauded the economic performance of the country, the opposition is intent on pointing out that voters are not feeling the impact of apparent surges in growth, but are instead saddled with the burden of a rising cost of living.

GDP growth of 5.9% in 2017 was powered by a staggering 18.9% year-on-year growth in total exports.

But Wong Chen, one of the architects of Pakatan’s economic manifesto, told the South China Morning Post that the mood on the ground did “not correlate with the economic numbers”.

“It’s going to be an election about the economy anyway… economic voters (who make up) about 25% of the total voting population will decide this election,” Wong told SCMP’s This Week in Asia.

The report also noted that the support of Sabah and Sarawak – once considered BN’s “fixed deposits” for votes – bore watching in the coming polls.

In Sabah, Najib faces the threat of former Umno minister Shafie Apdal, a Sabah native who was sacked from the cabinet over his criticism of how the government was handling the 1MDB scandal.

Both states are also raising the stakes and renewing calls for greater autonomy. Politicians in both states have long complained that the federal government has been gradually eroding their special rights and status enshrined in the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

Finally, the report noted that as in previous elections, there was likely to be a fierce battle to woo ethnic Chinese voters, who made up about 23.2% of Malaysia’s total population.

At MCA’s annual conference in November, Najib implored the Chinese community to support Barisan Nasional instead of DAP, which gained the most from the Chinese swing in the 2008 and 2013 polls.

However, the opposition is intent on using Najib’s recent courtship of Islamist party PAS as a Chinese vote puller.

Merideth Weiss, a Malaysian politics specialist at the University of Albany in the US, said if PAS formed an electoral pact with Najib, an increased number of non-Malay voters as well as Sabah and Sarawak were expected to throw their support behind PH.

While a PH victory was unlikely according to independent pollsters, said Najib’s BN was guaranteed one of its toughest election battles in history, said the report.