By all accounts, Malaysia's upcoming state and federal elections will be the most closely contested yet. Prime Minister Najib Razak waited as long as he could to call them, keeping the nation on edge to the point that business deals and investments had been put off. Now that there is certainty - the election commission is tipped to set polls for the latter half of this month - the campaigning has begun in earnest. The leader has to ensure that the contest is peaceful, free and fair.
There is no shortage of campaigning issues. High among them is corruption, brought to the fore by a video shot on hidden cameras purporting to show top-level graft in the government of the Borneo state of Sarawak. Race and class also feature, with the affirmative action policies of Najib's ruling United Malays National Organisation, the leading party in the governing National Front coalition, coming in for heightened scrutiny. Ethnic minority Chinese and Indians are questioning as never before why the 55 per cent majority Muslim Malay population should continue to get preferential treatment with education, bank loans and land purchases.
These, and livelihood issues like rising costs, are why the coalition faces a major electoral test, despite having won every poll since independence in 1957. That is not to say Najib has done a bad job. As he indicated last month in detailing progress on his government's "transformation programme", the economic growth rate last year was a solid 5.6 per cent and 400 corruption cases had been launched. Regardless, the opposition, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, senses a good chance of taking power. It won a record 37 per cent of seats in parliament in the last election in 2008.
Electoral boundaries are skewed in the National Front's favour and it muzzles the state-run media. True democracies allow a level playing field for candidates and equality for all people in society. Above all, there has to be fairness. The elections are a test of the Najib government's resolve to be working for the best interests of all Malaysians.