KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Voter approval of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling coalition is falling ahead of an election he must call within weeks, according to an opinion poll released on Tuesday, highlighting the tough task he faces despite a robust economy.
Support for Najib slipped to 61 percent in February from 63 percent in December and 65 percent in October, according to the poll by the respected Merdeka Center, one of the last surveys before the election that must be called by the end of April.
Support for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which Najib leads, fell to 45 percent from 47 percent in the two previous polls. In another potentially worrying finding for Najib, the survey showed a slide in support for the coalition among majority ethnic Malays to 73 percent from 77 percent in the previous survey.
Ethnic Malays are a bedrock of support for the coalition, which has been largely abandoned by ethnic Chinese voters who make up more than a quarter of Malaysians. The survey found that approval among ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian voters remained unchanged at 34 percent and 75 percent respectively.
The coalition suffered its worst electoral showing in 2008, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time against a resurgent opposition led by a former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
The BN is expected to win this election, but a failure to improve on 2008's result could cost Najib his job and raise uncertainty over policy.
Despite robust economic growth of 5.6 percent last year, those polled said they were most concerned about economic conditions, ahead of crime and political issues.
Malaysia's growth accelerated to an annual pace of 6.4 percent in the fourth quarter, the statistics department said last week, beating expectations with the fastest pace since 2010.
The poll found that support for Najib was highest among poorer Malaysians, reaching 73 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 46 percent.
The government has handed out payments of 500 ringgit to households earning 3,000 ringgit or less per month and increased pay and pensions for the 1.4-million strong civil service, a key vote base for the coalition.
The survey was carried out between January 23 and February 6 among 1,021 registered voters.
Reporting By Siva Sithraputhran; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Robert Birsel