KUALA LUMPUR Malaysia's opposition enjoys a very narrow lead over the long ruling National Front for the first time in a key poll issued on Friday, two days before an election in the Southeast Asian country.
The survey carried out by the Merdeka Center also revealed a broad decline in support for Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose National Front has held power since independence from Britain in 1957.
The survey, conducted between April 28 and May 2 among 1,600 voters, showed 42 percent of respondents wanted the opposition Peoples' Pact of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to govern the country. It credited the prime minister's Front with 41 percent.
Seventeen percent were either unsure or refused to answer.
It was the first time Merdeka had put such a question to voters. It was also the first time the opposition outscored the ruling coalition in any of its surveys, though the opposition has come out ahead in polls conducted by other organizations.
Stocks on the local bourse fell 1.09 percent, reflecting unease over the poll and partly offsetting gains this week.
"The fear of the outcome of the election and the uncertainty have been around for quite some time, but for those people who still have not sold, they have suddenly become fearful that the (National Front) may lose," said Ang Kok Heng of Phillip Capital Management Sdn Bhd.
Merdeka showed support for Najib had slipped to 61 percent from 64 percent in March. Dips were recorded within all three main ethnic groups -- 75 percent of majority Malays backed him against 76 percent in March, while support among minority Chinese fell to 31 percent from 37 percent and among Indians to 68 percent from 70 percent.
Ethnic Malays are the bedrock of support for the coalition, which has been largely abandoned by ethnic Chinese voters, more than a quarter of Malaysians.
Merdeka Center attributed the falls to the fleeting effect of government cash handouts to low-income groups and of increased pay and pensions for 1.4 million civil servants.
The coalition suffered its worst electoral showing in 2008, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time.
Most analysts predict the National Front will win narrowly on Sunday, but a failure to improve on the 2008 result could cost Najib his job and raise uncertainty over policy.
Despite robust economic growth of 5.6 percent last year, those polled expressed most concern about economic conditions.
The poll found support for Najib was highest among poorer Malaysians, reaching 75 percent among households earning less than 1,500 ringgit ($500) a month and lowest among households earning more than 5,000 ringgit a month, at 43 percent.
(Reporting By Siva Sithraputhran and Yantoultra Ngui; Editing by Ron Popeski)