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Elections

Malaysia gears up for tense election race

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved parliament for the up-coming general elections. With three million first-time-voters, observers believe the opposition has a fair shot at gaining support.

"I want change! I want a better future for me and my generation," says 20-year-old Halimah Salim. "You can't be creative if you are living in a silent era, with worries and anxieties about freedom of speech and expression." The student from the University of Malay is one of the nearly three million first-time voters and will not waste her chance to participate in the upcoming election.

Another young voter, Nusrat Jafree, who works as a therapist for children with special needs, has a different reason for going to the polls: "I hope to see a change of government. After all these years, I hope it will finally happen. This extremely corrupt Barisan Nasional government must go."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved parliament to pave the way for general elections, which are expected to be held on April 27. There is a lot at stake and it is expected to be the most intense poll ever in the nation's 56-year history.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (Photo: RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images)

PM Najib Razak's BN coalition is not expected to do as well in these elections as in the past

Malaysia is home to more than 28 million people with various ethnic and religious backgrounds. More than 50 percent of the population is Malay. Chinese and Indians make up around 25 and seven percent respectively. The ethnically diverse landscape of Malaysia reflects in its political parties. The Front National, or Barisan Nasional (BN), coalition is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and attracts voters of Malay descent. The coalition has controlled the Malaysian parliament since the country's independence from Britain in 1957.

Free and fair?

In the last election in 2008, however, it lost seats in parliament along with popularity to Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim. The UMNO responded by removing the then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and appointing Najib Razak to the post. With allegations of corruption on the rise, PM Razak faces a big challenge of shoring up support among the masses in this round of elections.

A Muslim woman cries as she offers a prayer during a protest against the anti-Islam film called Innocence of Muslims outside a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Lai Seng Sin)

Muslim Malaysians protested against the film 'Innocence of Muslims.' Islam is the country's official religion

Meanwhile, the opposition, which portrays the BN as an authoritarian and corrupt force, promises reforms. A human rights activist, writer and film-maker Hishamuddin Rais believes in the promise. "The opposition has a better chance this time," he said, adding, "Pakatan Rakyat coalition could win if the election is fair and free and there is no fraud."

To guarantee a free and fair election, the government promises reforms to the election process, such as the usa of permanent ink in order to avoid double voting and the provision of overseas balloting for polls. But many activists and opposition parties doubt the government's promises.

"Three conditions must be fulfilled: an independent audit of the electoral rolls, a minimum campaign period, and allowing international observers to monitor the elections," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in a statement. He maintains that Pakatan Rakyat remains severely disadvantaged in campaigning, as opposition parties have "no access to mainstream print and electronic media."

Pakatan Rakyat appeals to ethnic Chinese and Indian voters in urban areas. And its popularity is growing due to its promises to fight corruption, create wider transparency and ensure that elections are fair. PM Razak, on the other hand, relies on support with regards to the economy, highlighting last year's 5.6 percent growth rate and warns that the country's economy - the third largest in Asia - will be at risk if he does not win a strong majority in the election this year.

Young voters

Malaysia's new King Sultan Abdul Halim, front left, Queen Haminah stand on the red carpet during a welcoming ceremony at the Parliament Square in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011. The 84-year-old sultan became the oldest constitutional monarch in this Southeast Asian nation's history. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Malaysia has a constitutional monarchy, with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, as head of state

For a fifth of Malaysia's 13 million registered voters, these general elections will be the first time for them to cast their votes. Both coalitions are vying for their support. In February, Najib Razak even invited famous Korean entertainer PSY to perform his Gangnam Style song and dance in Penang, one of five states that BN lost in the last election.

Hishamuddin Rais argues, however, that the BN's efforts will not suffice. "The people of Malaysia have been living for many years under the same government. This is the time for change! People in both urban and rural areas are ready to support change."

Fathi Omar Aris expects the opposition coalition to increase their number of seats in parliament by at least 20. With the opposition on its heels, this will give the ruling BN coalition the opportunity to rethink its policies. The competition, he says, "will sooner or later push the government to introduce more reforms. Whether these reforms are considered 'cosmetic' or ‘real' depends on how much pressure the public put on the weak National Front government."

DW.DE