Malaysians vote in knife-edge election

Malaysians voted Sunday in their first election in history with a change of government at stake, as a decades-old regime battles to hold off a rising opposition pledging sweeping reform.

Voting got under way at 8:00 am (0000 GMT) as polling centres opened with tensions high after a bitter campaign in the multi-ethnic country marked by charges of election fraud and hundreds of reports of violence.

Malaysians have keenly awaited the vote ever since 2008 polls, when the opposition made unprecedented gains against the once-invincible coalition that has monopolised federal power since independence in 1957.

The coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and led by Prime Minister Najib Razak had been expected to edge the Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) alliance captained by charismatic UMNO outcast Anwar Ibrahim.

But recent opinion polls have indicated the race was too close to predict and Anwar has been feted by festival crowds in the tens of thousands on the stump.

"It's a tight run. But I'm not scared, I'm excited," said retiree H.Y. Ong, as he waited to vote in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

"The times have changed, they (the government) need to change. Money politics should be controlled," he added, while not divulging his voting preference.

Pakatan has capitalised on anger over corruption, authoritarianism and controversial policies that favour majority ethnic Malays, while wooing minorities and a younger generation exposed to alternative views found online.

It pledges sweeping reform including freeing up politics and the economy and ending cronyism and corruption that it says props up a powerful elite.

His back to the wall, Najib has offered limited political reforms to stem the tide, but otherwise a largely stay-the-course vision.

The opposition has set the stage for a possibly disputed result with numerous accusations of electoral fraud by the Barisan Nasional (National Front) ruling coalition.

They include an alleged scheme to fly tens of thousands of "dubious" and possibly foreign voters to key constituencies to sway results.

The government claims the flights were part of a voter-turnout drive but has given no other details.

Indelible ink applied to voters' fingers to prevent multiple voting -- touted by Najib as a safeguard against fraud -- also was found to wash off. The Election Commission, widely viewed as pro-Barisan, has brushed off any concern.

"I warn the Election Commission and the government again -- the rakyat (people) will not tolerate any electoral fraud. We will be vigilant of all suspicious activities," Anwar said Saturday.

The streets of the normally congested capital Kuala Lumpur were quiet Sunday morning, with a light security presence visible.

Anwar was a former deputy premier until his ouster in a 1998 power struggle and jailing for six years on sex charges widely viewed as trumped up. He later brought his star power to the once-weak opposition, dramatically changing its fortunes.

It remains to be seen whether Malaysians will vote out the only government they have known, and Najib has played on fears for stability while pledging to maintain solid economic growth.

His ethnic Malay-dominated regime retains powerful advantages, including control of traditional media and an electoral landscape critics say is biased.

Campaigning has been marred by hundreds of reports of violence, intimidation, arson and two small explosions, although no deaths have been reported.

Polling stations close at 5:00 pm (0900 GMT) with results expected to begin rolling out within hours.