Malaysia on Wednesday announced a general election for May 5, setting a long-awaited date for polls tipped to be the closest ever as the long-ruling government tries to hold off a surging opposition.
Speaking a week after Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolved parliament, Election Commission chairman Aziz Yusof said the two-week official campaign period would begin on April 20.
Election fever has already gripped the country with posters, banners and party flags lining many roads.
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has ruled Malaysia through coalition governments since independence in 1957, faces a formidable opposition that promises to end corruption, cronyism and authoritarian rule.
Under UMNO the country became a regional economic success story, while enjoying relative harmony between the majority ethnic Malays and its sizeable ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities.
Najib hopes to extend the government’s unbeaten run in the polls by focusing on his steady economic stewardship and offering the public a series of cash handouts and other sweeteners.
“This election is a choice between sticking with a competent, reform-minded government and risking our prosperity on a fractious, inexperienced opposition,” a spokesman for Najib said.
But the opposition has won support with pledges of clean, transparent governance and respect for civil liberties.
The UMNO-controlled Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition had romped to victory in every election until 2008, when it won the polls but lost its two-thirds majority.
It now faces the fight of its life against the three-party Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
In the 1990s the charismatic Anwar was handpicked by the then-authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad as his heir in UMNO.
But Anwar was ousted from government in 1998 and jailed in a power struggle between the two men that left Malaysian politics deeply polarised.
“For Pakatan Rakyat it is the best possible chance to offer a viable alternative, for democracy and a more responsible government. I think the chances of winning are very good,” Anwar told AFP.
Najib is seeking his first mandate from voters after taking the helm of the ruling coalition in 2009, following his predecessor’s resignation over the poll setback the year before.
He has launched reforms to strengthen the economy, which grew 5.6 per cent last year despite the global malaise, and improve civil liberties.
Barisan holds 135 of parliament’s 222 seats and nine of Malaysia’s 13 states, while the opposition has 75 seats and four states.
With a tight contest forecast, both sides have competed to lure voters with a range of electoral promises, stoking debt fears.
Political analyst Wan Saiful Wan Jan of the think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs told AFP it was the first time Barisan would face a real challenge from the opposition.
“It is really 50-50. If any party is complacent, they will lose out,” he warned, adding he hoped violence would not mar the election.
Ambiga Sreenevasan, co-chairman of electoral reform group Bersih, said the upcoming election “will be one of the dirtiest we have seen for a long time”.
“It will be very competitive, and that is why it will be one of the dirtiest elections,” she told AFP.
Ambiga said incidents of political violence were on the increase. Scuffles between rival supporters have broken out at several pre-election rallies.
The opposition and electoral reform advocates also complain the contest is not free and fair due to a system skewed in the government’s favour, and allege widespread irregularities in voter rolls.
The government rejects the charges, citing recent reforms such as the introduction of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting. Election Commission chief Aziz said anti-corruption authorities would monitor polling.