Malaysia opposition vows reform, lower living costs

Malaysia's opposition unveiled a sweeping election manifesto Monday that pledges to eliminate authoritarian rule and corruption, while promising lower fuel prices and other populist sweeteners.

Unveiling the platform, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim promised a new era for the ethnically diverse and economically vibrant country, which has been governed since independence in 1957 by essentially the same ruling coalition.

"This is about the rise of the people. We, as leaders, are only the catalyst," Anwar said in a speech after the manifesto's release.

"We are responsible for returning human dignity and pride to the people."

Elections are due by late June but Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to call a fresh vote within weeks.

The contest will pit his ethnic Malay-dominated Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition against the three-party opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact).

The opposition shocked the government by surging to its best showing ever in 2008 parliamentary elections. It is widely seen as facing its best chance ever to dethrone the ruling coalition in the coming vote.

Its manifesto focuses on a growing desire among many Malaysians for a shift away from the governing style of the ruling bloc, which is criticised for its tough handling of dissent and a litany of corruption scandals.

It vows to wage "war" on corruption, abolish laws that infringe on democratic rights and end what it portrays as political interference in key government institutions, the civil service and academia.

The manifesto also promises to cut prices of fuel, utilities and other key items, by dismantling monopolies that benefit government "cronies" and implementing other reforms to stimulate competition.

Besides Anwar's multiracial People's Justice Party, the opposition alliance includes the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party representing Muslim ethnic Malays, and the Democratic Action Party dominated by ethnic Chinese.

Barisan Nasional is dominated by the country's single most powerful force, the United Malays National Organisation.

Political observers forecast a tight contest, with the ruling bloc seen as having the edge due to its deep pockets, control over mainstream media and an electoral system the opposition says is rigged in the government's favour.