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Malaysians began casting votes Sunday in a razor's edge general election, with Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak's ruling party fighting to maintain its five-decade hold on power in the face of a resurgent opposition. Razak's Barisan National coalition is up against the three-party opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar is hoping to tap into growing public discontent over the rising cost of living, corruption and racial discord to pull off a historic upset.
In the run-up to the election, dozens of acts of violence across the country have been witnessed. In the past two weeks, there were reports of operation centers being petrol-bombed, scuffles between supporters and various acts of vandalism.
Najib, who has promised a peaceful and orderly transition of power, called on the public to remain calm and accept the outcome of the election.
"As Malaysians, despite our political differences, we must protect the country's image and dignity. Let the electoral process run smoothly and everybody must accept the results," he said. Najib, in an interview with local media on Friday, estimated the BN could win between 140 and 155 parliamentary seats.
Anwar, saying he could win 53 percent of the parliamentary seats, has accused the ruling party of employing dirty tactics such as planting dubious voters in the electoral roll and shifting voters to constituencies, where BN candidates are at risk. He has also complained about mainstream media bias, saying the media was either government-run or backed by the ruling party.
The election watchdog, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, better known as Bersih, supported Anwar's claims although BN and Najib have denied accusations of vote-rigging.
Bersih reported the government had been flying in "jumbo jet planeloads of people, whether they are citizens or not, illegitimately granting them citizenship in order to vote."
Anwar has claimed that some 40,000 phantom voters, including foreigners like Bangladeshis and Indonesians, have been flown in by BN to cast their vote.
Anwar's party complained Sunday about incidents where supposedly indelible ink used to mark the fingers of voters was washing off with water. There have also been reports where voters were given pencils to mark their ballot paper instead of a pen.
"This 13th general election is set to be the dirtiest ever," Bersih said.
Najib has vowed to block the opposition's onslaught in the 2013 election. He has appealed to voters to give him a chance to continue the reforms he has initiated.
"It is not that we are demanding victory, but we have a better track record and a better agenda for Malaysia," Najib told reporters after casting his vote in Pekan, his constituency in Pahang state.
BN has also been highlighting its 55-year "achievement" in turning the once agrarian country into a prosperous, modern industrialized nation. It has doled out billions of ringgit in cash handouts to the poor, which critics said tantamount to vote-buying.
BN has been warning voters of a possible repeat of the 1969 race riots, should the opposition win.
Since the last election in 2008, the ruling party has witnessed a decline in support from ethnic Chinese, who make up one-third of Malaysia's 29 million people. According to a Merdeka Center survey, only 13 percent of Chinese respondents support BN compared with 68 percent Malays.
Ethnic Malays are the strongest BN supporters, especially in regard to Najib's own party, the United Malays National Organization.
Party right wingers have warned that an opposition win means the Chinese would lord over the ethnic Malays and scrap their privileges.
The opposition has slammed such fear-mongering. It argued that the pro-Malay policy has only enriched UMNO cronies, as the party used government contracts to buy patronage and support. Anwar's alliance has pledged to abolish the race-based economic policy and touted one based on needs.