Chief minister of Malaysia's state of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud (C), arrives at the polling centre to cast his vote during the Sarawak state elections in Kuching 16 April 2011. (Reuters)
Voting began on Saturday in a key Malaysian state poll in which Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected to test the ground for an early general election to galvanise his bid for economic reform.
A strong win for the ruling National Front coalition in the sprawling, resource-rich state of Sarawak, on Borneo island, could prompt Najib to call a national election this year, although a poll is not due until 2013.
"This election is different and for the National Front, tougher. It is certainly the most exciting state election and some would say the most unpredictable," the pro-government New Straits Times newspaper said in an editorial on Saturday. "While the National Front is bullish, albeit with some losses, the opposition also are looking at better results."
In the state capital of Kuching, the opposition held its final rallies on Friday night which drew more than 10,000 supporters. The party's election candidates addressed the mainly ethnic Chinese crowd in Mandarin, and were greeted with shouts of "Ubah!" (change).
Nearly 1 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots and election officials have deployed more than 853 boats and 27 helicopters to manage the polls in the deep tropical forest interiors.
Polling will close at 0500 pm local time (0900GMT) with final results expected by 1100 p.m. (1500GMT).
Since taking office in 2009, Najib has tried to restructure the economy to win investment by opening up the banking sector to more foreign competition and taking steps to trim the fiscal deficit, which hit a 20-year high in 2009.
But he has slowed down on fuel subsidy cuts and twice delayed the implementation of a goods and services tax, wary of upsetting voters who handed the ruling coalition record losses in the last general election in 2008.
The election will also be a test of strength for the country's opposition, which has lost momentum due to a string of local election losses and allegations of its leader Anwar Ibrahim's involvement in a sodomy case and a sex tape scandal.
Analysts polled by Reuters say that the opposition was not strong enough to wrest control of the state.
But voter complaints of religious discrimination and dissatisfaction with the state's long-serving chief minister could see the opposition increase its seats in the 71-seat state assembly from 7 to 18, which would be seen a blow to Najib in his efforts to revive his ruling coalition.