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REFILE - REMOVING RESTRICTIONS A motorcyclist rides next to flags of the ruling party, National Front, in Bangi, Malaysia April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer(reuters_tickers)
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - With a general election called for midweek on May 9, Malaysians took to social media on Tuesday to offer funding to help people return to their home towns to vote, while some companies offered employees days off.
The election could prove to be the toughest test of the ruling coalition's 61-year grip on power, with embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak under pressure to deliver an emphatic win.
Najib is struggling to appease Malaysians unhappy with rising costs and a multi-billion dollar scandal at a state fund he founded.
The 64-year-old leader is expected to retain power, but analysts predict a tough fight from his old mentor and the country's most seasoned campaigner, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is a spry 92.
Opposition leaders and rights activists said the Wednesday polling date would probably dent voter turnout and benefit the ruling Barisan Nasional.
The government has not yet called a public holiday on what will be Malaysia's first weekday poll in nearly two decades.
Several Twitter users stepped up, saying they had set aside funds ranging from 150 ringgit ($39) to 1,000 ringgit ($259) to pay for flights or bus rides home for those needing assistance, and many offered carpool rides.
"I am seeing total strangers offering help to fellow Malaysians to go home and vote. No one shall deny our right to vote!" wrote a user with the handle @Klubbkiddkl, who started a hashtag to connect those in need.
The hashtag #PulangMengundi, or 'Go home to vote', was trending by late afternoon.
Several companies said they would let staff take time off, and some offered to cover employees' travel costs.
"We will definitely give the voting day off, and for staff who have to travel, we will allow remote working," said Mellissa Lee, the head of email marketing platform GetResponse Malaysia.
Google Malaysia will be supportive of any staff seeking time out to vote, spokesman Zeffri Yusof told Reuters.
Shekhinah PR, a sports public relations firm, also offered to defray travel costs.
"To lessen the financial burden of the staff, the management will meet the costs of their travel expenses (petrol and toll charges)," Chief Executive Christopher Raj said on Facebook.
The opposition has said it expects the election to be unfair, after parliament approved plans to redraw electoral boundaries and pushed through an anti-fake news bill, changes critics say will favour Najib.
The government and election authorities have rejected these accusations.
(Reporting by Liz Lee and A. Ananthalakshmi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)