Titanic battle for hearts of the Malays
Najib takes Mahathir factor seriously despite holding all the cards in the general election
PETALING JAYA This is not the first general election that Mr Najib Razak is leading, yet he looked tense and coiled up when announcing the dissolution of Parliament last week.
Some thought the Prime Minister, now in caretaker mode, appeared rather worried and the solemn look of his deputy, Mr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, only added to the speculation.
Yet this is one election that Barisan Nasional (BN), especially Umno, is super prepared for, if the accounts coming out of its recent nationwide election dry run is anything to go by.
It has everything down to a tee, from a tuned-up campaign machinery to locating "white voters" whom it has to fetch to the voting centre on polling day.
So why the oh-so-serious looks on the faces of the two men?
For a start, this will be the mother of all elections.
The ruling coalition is facing a formidable Pakatan Harapan (PH), the opposition led by former premier Mahathir Mohamad, an old fox who has had more experience running a general election than anyone else.
As analysts pointed out, GE14 will basically be a Malay fight.
It will be in the Malay battlegrounds where issues of race and Islam will ride alongside concerns about the rising cost of living.
No one really believes that Barisan will lose the general election, but the burden is heavy on Mr Najib's shoulders to do better than the 133 parliamentary seats won by BN in 2013. And if BN takes back one opposition state, that would be a bonus.
But Mr Najib is not alone in looking stressed. Dr Mahathir is also feeling the pressure.
Of late, the 92-year-old Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) leader seems rather forgetful of facts, and there are days when he has problems pronouncing certain words, including the name of his coalition.
But he is still a big name and dominates every single press conference held by PH leaders.
Only Mr Abdul Hadi Awang has managed to stay calm - he is leaving it in the hands of God. The PAS president announced on Friday that his Gagasan Sejahtera coalition will be contesting 130 out of 222 parliamentary seats.
The Malay parties - Umno, PAS, Pribumi and Amanah - are thrashing it out for key battlegrounds in Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu, Pahang and parts of Johor and Perak.
Those states perceived to be in danger include Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.
"Going by ceramah (political rally) crowd size, Mr Mahathir's party is bigger than (fellow Pakatan coalition member) Amanah, but the battle is between PAS and Umno. The chances of Umno losing Terengganu is there but when I go around Terengganu, there is not much interest at all," said political commentator Azmi Omar.
But everything changed on Thursday with the stunning announcement that Pakatan partners would be contesting under the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) logo.
The shock waves are still reverberating through supporters of the parties in PH.
There was outrage over the Registrar of Societies (RoS) move against Pribumi. Many people felt that RoS was pressing the levers of power too hard.
The idea that the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) is giving up its rocket symbol for what the Penang Hokkiens call "lam bak chew" or blue eye, is still sinking in.
DAP leaders say they are doing it out of solidarity. But politics is rarely so altruistic and it looks more like a strategy to shock voters out of their lethargy, to make them jump up to save the party.
Another reason for the move is that Dr Mahathir's party has been unable to create much momentum on the Malay ground.
PPBM is struggling even in its frontline state of Johor. A survey by a Singapore think-tank found that only 21 per cent of Malays there support PPBM, compared to 67 per cent for Umno and 48per cent for PAS.
Using the PKR logo may make DAP candidates more palatable to the Malays, crucial in mixed seats.
The Malay vote shift began in 1999 when Dr Mahathir sacked his then deputy Mr Anwar Ibrahim, who went on to form PKR. Anwar is still in jail, but he must be having the last laugh.
Dr Mahathir is eating the ultimate humble pie - compelled to contest under the banner of the very party he tried to stamp out.
Many of the memes about Dr Mahathir on social media are generated from the BN side but make no mistake, Umno takes Dr Mahathir seriously.
The Malay battle might have been easier to predict were it not for the Mahathir factor. Whether the factor is more hype than real will be known soon.
But BN's preparedness to win the GE14 is no hype.
On Saturday, Mr Najib unveiled his game changer, the Barisan manifesto, which a senior editor described as an "offer that Malaysians will find hard to say 'no' to".
Mr Najib has stayed focused throughout the last five years, described as one long political campaign.
He has unveiled his report card of delivery, and he is now presenting what he has to offer in the next five years. - THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK