Malaysia will hold its next general election on March 8 in a vote expected to return the ruling coalition to power despite religious and racial tensions that spilled into the streets last year with protests by minority Indians that stunned the nation.
The Election Commission announced yesterday that candidates will be nominated on Feb. 24 to officially open the campaign for the polls to elect 222 lawmakers in parliament.
Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi paved the way for the elections by dissolving parliament on Wednesday.
Observers say Abdullah decided to hold early elections because public frustration over soaring prices will likely intensify this year when he lifts subsidies on fuel prices. The elections were not due until May 2009.
Twelve state legislatures will also go to polls on March 8 with a total 505 seats at stake. A 13th state held legislative elections last year.
"Come out and vote, don't sleep ... I want to see a free and fair election," Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman told reporters.
He said 10.92 million people -- out of a population of 27 million -- had registered to vote.
Abdul Rashid rejected accusations that Malaysian votes are habitually rigged in favor of the ruling National Front coalition.
"There are lot of lies out there," he said.
Abdullah's 14-party National Front, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957, won a record 199 of the 219 parliamentary seats in the last elections in 2004, a 91 percent majority.
The National Front is dominated by Abdullah's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which draws its support from the ethnic Muslim Malays who are 60 percent of the population.
UMNO is joined by ethnic Chinese and Indian parties in the coalition, which makes a victory for the National Front inevitable. Observers will watch the election only for the National Front's margin of victory -- anything less than a two-thirds majority would be seen as a major slap.
"We won't underestimate the opposition. We take everything seriously -- big or small," Abdullah told reporters.
Abdullah's popularity has plunged recently because of rising prices and increasing crime. Also, the Chinese and the Indians have become more insecure because of the Islamization of a society that takes pride in its racial harmony.
Ethnic tensions have also soared because of anger among Indians who complain of discrimination in education, jobs, business and religion.
In an unprecedented show of dissent, some 20,000 Indians held an anti-government demonstration in November.
But because of their small numbers Indians can affect the outcome of the elections only in a few constituencies.
Many Malays aligned with the opposition have also voiced frustration at the election system. They accuse the government of gerrymandering constituencies to its benefit, using bogus voters and misusing the state-controlled media during campaigning.
Opposition parties are hoping that public disenchantment with Abdullah's administration will deny it a two-thirds majority.
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