Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolved parliament yesterday in preparation for a general election seen as the toughest challenge yet for the ruling coalition after 56 years in power.
“This morning I met the king and asked for his consent to dissolve the parliament,” he said.
“This dissolution will pave the way for the 13th general election,” he added.
The election commission will meet shortly to decide on a date for the poll, which is likely to take place within the next few weeks.
Analysts predict the election will be the closest ever amid concerns over corruption, the rising cost of living and crime under the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
The 13-member coalition is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is led by Najib, who has worked hard to rebrand it by launching a series of reforms aimed at boosting the economy and granting greater civil liberties.
The opposition three-party Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact), led by the charismatic Anwar Ibrahim, a former Malaysian deputy premier, made unprecedented inroads in the last polls in 2008.
It currently holds 75 of 222 parliamentary seats and controls four of the country’s 13 states.
“For Pakatan Rakyat it is the best possible chance to offer a viable alternative for democracy and a more responsible government. I think the chances of winning are very good amid signs of desperation in the leadership of Najib,” Anwar said.
“My major concern is they may resort to fraud during the polls and violence in the run-up to the elections,” he added.
Activists and the opposition have demanded free and fair elections, staging several mass rallies calling for change, including a clean-up of the electoral roll which they say is marred with irregularities.
In response, Najib’s government has taken steps, including the introduction of indelible ink to prevent multiple voting and allowing Malaysians abroad to vote by post.
However, the opposition says these moves fall short of creating a level electoral playing field.
In his announcement of the dissolution of parliament, which was broadcast on national television, Najib urged political parties to observe the rule of law and promised a smooth transition of power if the opposition wins.
“If there is change in power, it will and must happen peacefully. This is our commitment,” he said.
He appealed to the electorate not to “gamble” away their votes by choosing the opposition.
Part of the reason the ruling party has stayed in power is because of decades of economic growth.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third-biggest economy, grew a better-than-expected 5.6 percent last year, spurred by consumer spending supported by pre-election direct cash handouts and other incentives.
However, criticism of its authoritarian rule has gained traction and the opposition is promising a new era of political liberalization and an end to entrenched corruption.
It dismisses Najib’s reforms as window-dressing, and is pledging to stamp out graft and channel money now allegedly given to government cronies toward free education, cutting taxes and increasing subsidies.
It is also vowing to address complaints of discrimination against minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, who account for about a third of the population.