(Reuters) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim scored better than the government's pick to become the next prime minister in an opinion poll which showed that worries over the economy dominated voter concerns.Anwar is threatening to unseat the government that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years and the rise of the opposition since their success in elections in March has paralysed policy-making as top politicians from the government jostle for power.
The poll by the Merdeka Center published on Monday showed that for half of people questioned, the main concern in this country of 27 million people was the economy at a time when fuel prices have risen and inflation has surged to 27-year highs.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has offered to quit early to avoid a leadership challenge topped the poll, although his approval ratings continue to fall.
Asked who would make the better prime minister, 40 percent said Anwar and 34 percent said Najib Razak. Najib has been named as successor to Abdullah who scored 43 percent.
Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was imprisoned on what he says were trumped up sodomy and corruption charges in the late 1990s was characterised as 'a strong and visionary leader' and 'a competent manager of the economy' by 51 percent of respondents in the poll of 1,003 voters.
He is facing new charges of sodomy which he denies.
Anwar has said that he has won over enough government MPs to oust Abdullah in a confidence vote in parliament and the prime minister on Friday said he would hand power to Najib, most likely in March.
Abdullah had earlier planned to hand over power in 2010.
Since becoming prime minister in 2004, Abdullah has failed to implement key pledges such as ending corruption and boosting the independence of the judiciary. The policy drift, along with rising racial tensions, has unsettled both party activists and investors.
A year ago just 25 percent of those questioned in a similar poll by Merdeka, an independent pollster, were worried about the economy in the poll a year ago compared with 50 percent now.
Markets are nervous over a prolonged transition.
'Political noise remains elevated, which we consider bearish for risky assets, including the ringgit, and bullish for government bonds,' ING said in its morning Asia research report.
ING forecasts that the ringgit will end this year at 3.55 to the dollar compared with 3.4410, a depreciation of over 3 percent. It has already fallen 3.7 percent this year.
The plan to hand power to Najib has also unsettled some in the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party that dominates the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
On Saturday, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister said the plan was 'extra constitutional' and said he would stand in the party polls.
Home Minister Syed Hamid said on Sunday said that the intense contest for party posts was causing splits in UMNO.
'We see that the heat is becoming more intense, as though there are instigators pitting one group against another,' he said, according to state news agency Bernama.
Traditionally the leader of UMNO is also the prime minister of Malaysia and under party rules, any contenders for UMNO president must garner 30 percent of total nominations to be eligible to run.
(Reporting by David Chance, editing by Sanjeev Miglani)