Hotly awaited Malaysia election set for May 5

Malaysia on Wednesday announced a general election for May 5, setting a long-awaited date for polls tipped to be its closest ever as the long-ruling government seeks 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 kick off on April 20.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has controlled Malaysia through coalition governments since independence in 1957, faces a formidable opposition that promises to end corruption, cronyism and authoritarian rule.

Under UMNO, multi-ethnic Malaysia became a regional economic success story while enjoying relative harmony between majority ethnic Malays and its sizeable minorities.

Najib hopes to extend the government's unbeaten run in the polls by focusing on his steady economic stewardship and a torrent of cash handouts and other sweeteners to the public.

"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 told AFP after the polling date was announced.

But the opposition has won support with pledges of clean, transparent governance and respect for civil liberties, enjoying unprecedented freedom to get its message past state-controlled mainstream media via the Internet.

The three-party opposition surged to its best showing ever in the 2008 vote, shattering the ruling regime's decades-old aura of invincibility.

Speculation over a date for fresh polls has been at fever pitch in the past two years but Najib set the stage last week by dissolving parliament just ahead of its expiry at the end of the month.

The UMNO-controlled Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition had romped to victory in every election before 2008, when it lost its powerful two-thirds majority.

It now faces the fight of its life against the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.

The charismatic Anwar was handpicked by authoritarian ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad as heir to UMNO but 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.

With a tight contest forecast, both sides have competed to lure voters with a range of electoral promises, stoking debt fears.

Najib upped the ante Saturday, pledging more cash for the poor and other handouts.

Pakatan has promised free primary-to-university education, policies to boost incomes, and other measures.

The opposition and electoral reform advocates complain the contest is not free and fair due to a system skewed in the government's favour, and have warned of outright fraud, alleging widespread irregularities in voter rolls.

But the government rejects the charges, citing recent reforms such as the introduction of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting, and EC chief Aziz said anti-corruption authorities would monitor polling.

Najib took the helm of the ethnic Malay-dominated ruling coalition in 2009 after his predecessor resigned amid pressure over the polls setback the year before.

Seeking his first mandate from voters, Najib has launched reforms to strengthen the economy and improve civil liberties. The economy grew a steady 5.6 percent last year despite the global malaise.

But the opposition calls Najib's reforms half-hearted window-dressing and has harped on recurring corruption scandals linked to the government.

Barisan holds 135 of parliament's 222 seats and nine of Malaysia's 13 states, while the opposition has 75 seats and control of four states.