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Counting of votes began Sunday in Malaysia's closely contested 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.
The three-party opposition alliance is led by Anwar Ibrahim, who is hoping to tap into growing public discontent over the rising cost of living, corruption and racial discord to pull off a historic upset.
After 15 days of heated campaigning, the Elections Commission announced a record 80 percent turnout, up from 76 percent in the last election in 2008.
Polling stations closed at 5 p.m. and the first results are expected to begin trickling in from 7.30 p.m. The commission expects that by midnight the nation will know who will lead the country.
Up for grabs are the 222 seats up in the Dewan Rakyat, or the lower house of the federal parliament, and the 505 seats in the 12 state legislative assemblies.
Out of the 13.3 million voters, 2.3 million are new voters who could make a difference. Most political watchers believed Najib's 13-party National Front coalition, more popularly known by its Malay acronym BN, will win albeit by a slim majority. But there are also some who predict that the election is too close to call.
A survey of some 1,600 registered voters during the campaign period by the independent Merdeka Research gave the Anwar-led People's Alliance a slight edge, with a 42 percent chance of victory over BN's 41 percent.
The Merdeka Center also estimated that BN could win 85 seats while the opposition gets 89 seats, with the remaining 46 seats a toss-up between the two sides.
BN controlled 135 seats in Parliament before it was dissolved on April 3. The People's Alliance had 75 seats while the rest were independents.
This is the first time since 1969 that the opposition has a fighting chance of assuming power. That year, the opposition won the election for the first time but could not form a government due to race riots that broke out between the dominant ethnic Malays and the minority Chinese, and the BN caretaker government then declared emergency rule. Once fragmented and under resourced, they were easily trounced in subsequent elections by the mighty BN, which has money, control of the media and the backing of the entire state apparatus.
But the 2008 election marked a turning point. The opposition succeeded in denting BN's traditional two-thirds stranglehold in the parliament. Anwar also led his coalition to seize control of five states. Previously, the opposition only ruled in one state out of 13.
The two-thirds majority, once breached, created a shockwave that led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Najib took over vowing to block the opposition's onslaught. He has appealed to voters to give him a chance to continue the reforms he has initiated.
"It is not that we are demanding it but it is because 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 is touting its 55-year achievement in turning this once-agrarian country into a prosperous, modern industrialized nation. It has also doled out billions of ringgit in cash handouts to the poor, which critics say is tantamount to vote-buying.
BN has also been warning voters of the possibility of a repeat of the 1969 race riots should the opposition win.
Since 2008, the ruling party has witnessed an exodus of support from the ethnic Chinese, who make up one-third of the country's 29 million population. According to a Merdeka Center survey, only 13 percent of ethnic Chinese respondents supported BN, compared with 68 percent from the Malay respondents.
The Malays, who are deemed to be still economically backward, have long been coddled by the government through an affirmative action policy that gives them special privileges such as easier entry into public universities. They are the bastion of support for BN especially 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. They have 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 do away with race-based economic policy.
David Yoong, 33, voting for the first time in his life, told Kyodo News that he picked Anwar's party, the People's Justice Party.
"Mainly because I am fed up with the corruption, the swindling of the people's money," he said. "Power really corrupts if not checked."
He said he thinks the opposition would offer a "cleaner" alternative.
But in this "mother-of-all-elections," violence has already reared its ugly head. There were reports of operation centers being petrol-bombed, scuffles among supporters and various acts of vandalism.
Najib, who has promised a "peaceful and orderly transition of power," once again appealed for calm and for the public to accept the outcome of the election.
"This will tarnish Malaysia's image. As Malaysians, despite our political differences, we must protect the country's image and dignity. Let the electoral process runs smoothly and everybody must accept the results," he said. Najib in an interview with local media on Friday estimated that BN could win between 140 and 155 parliamentary seats.
Anwar has voiced confidence of capturing 53 percent of the parliamentary seats, but believes he was not given a level playing field. He has accused the ruling party of employing dirty tactics like planting dubious voters in the electoral roll and shifting voters to constituencies where the BN candidates are at risk. He has also complained about biased coverage of the mainstream media.
The election watchdog, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections, better known as Bersih, has backed Anwar's claims although BN and Najib have denied his accusations.
"The most critical elections in Malaysia's history are likely to be stolen from the people with a series of fraudulent moves on the eve of polling day," Bersih said in a statement. "Flying in jumbo jet planeloads of people -- be they citizens or non-citizens who have been illegitimately granted citizenship in order to vote -- is an act of treason."
Anwar has claimed that some 40,000 "phantom voters," some including foreigners like Bangladeshis and Indonesians were being flown in by BN to vote.
"This 13th general election is set to be the dirtiest ever," Bersih added.
Further casting doubts on the cleanliness of the electoral process, Anwar's party complained Sunday about incidents where indelible ink used to mark voters to prevent double-voting was easily washed off. This is the first time indelible ink is being used during voting. They also complained about cases where voters were given pencils to mark their ballot paper instead of pen.