Malaysians vote, with power at stake for first time

AFP , Sunday 5 May 2013

The election commission says about 80 percent of registered voters participated in Malaysia's general elections

Malaysia's opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim greets supporters after casting his vote during the general elections in Permatang Pauh, 350 km (217 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur May 5, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Malaysians voted in record numbers in Sunday's general election, with one of the world's longest-serving governments facing a serious threat from an upstart opposition that pledges sweeping reform.

Early results were mixed, more than four hours after polls closed at 5 p.m. (0900 GMT), with each side seeing both gains and losses as votes were slowly tallied.

The Election Commission said a record of about 80 percent of 13 million registered voters -- or more than 10 million people -- had turned out, in polls dogged by controversy from the start.

Analysts have said high turnout could benefit the opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim over the ruling coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has had a lock on power since independence in 1957.

"There is clearly, undeniably, a major groundswell and a major shift among the population across ethnic lines," Anwar, 65, said after he voted earlier Sunday in his constituency in the northern state of Penang.

"Inshallah (God willing), we will win."

Voters in the multi-ethnic nation swamped the Internet with accusations that Prime Minister Najib Razak's government sought to steal the election, as indelible ink that he touted as a guarantee against fraud was found to be easily washed off.

The complaints added to a host of allegations by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) alliance of irregularities that have raised the spectre of a disputed result.

The three-party Pakatan led by charismatic former UMNO star Anwar stunned the country with historic gains in 2008 polls and is gunning for a landmark victory.

Najib's 13-party Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is favoured to keep power. But Anwar has been feted by massive crowds on the stump and recent opinion polls have suggested a race too close to call.

Pakatan has gained traction with pledges to end ruling-party corruption and authoritarianism, and to reform controversial affirmative-action policies for majority Malays. Anwar says they are abused by a corrupt Malay elite.

Najib has offered limited political reforms but a largely stay-the-course vision for the mainly Muslim nation.

The ink was introduced for the first time and touted by Najib and the Election Commission -- widely viewed as Barisan-controlled -- as proving their commitment to fair polls.

It is applied to a person's finger to show they have voted.

But voters like Halim Mohamad, 77, said the ink washed right off even though it is supposed to last several days.

"This is cheating. I was shocked when it came off," he told AFP after voting in Penang, showing his cleaned index finger. "I complained to an Election Commission official and he just laughed."

The opposition had already alleged numerous irregularities including a charge that tens of thousands of "dubious" and possibly foreign voters were flown to key constituencies to sway results.

The government has said the flights were part of a voter-turnout drive but has provided no details, while Najib tweeted Sunday that no foreigners were drafted in.

"We are committed to a fair election," he said.

But videos, pictures and first-hand accounts of purportedly foreign "voters" being turned away from polling centres went viral online.

Anwar was deputy premier until his ousting in a 1998 power struggle with then-premier Mahathir Mohamad, and his jailing for six years on sex charges widely viewed as trumped up.

He later brought his pan-racial appeal to the once-divided opposition, dramatically reversing its fortunes.

Najib's ethnic Malay-dominated regime retains powerful advantages, including control of traditional media, key institutions and an electoral landscape which critics say is biased.

Najib has predicted chaos and racial strife under Pakatan, which includes Anwar's multiracial party, one led by ethnic Chinese and another representing conservative Muslim Malays.

"It's a tight run. But I'm not scared, I'm excited," retiree H.Y. Ong said of the race before voting 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.

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