Malaysia is voting in what is widely expected to be the most closely contested general election in the country’s history.
PM Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is up against Pakatan Rakyat, a three-party alliance headed by Anwar Ibrahim.
Voters are faced with returning the ruling party, in power for 56 years, or choosing an untested opposition.
Ahead of the polls, allegations of various forms of fraud emerged.
At polling station in the capital Kuala Lumpur queues had formed well before voting began.
Analysts say that for the first time since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, there is a real possibility that the opposition may be able to unseat the ruling party. Opinion polls suggest support for the two sides is evenly matched.
The possibility of an end to more than half a century of one-party rule has made this the hardest-fought election anyone can remember.
The hunger for change, especially among younger Malaysians, has given the opposition real momentum during the campaign.
But the ruling party has significant advantages in the cash it has spent on crowd-pleasing hand-outs, and in the way Malaysia’s parliamentary system over-represents rural areas, where the government’s support is strongest.
Nearly eight million people cast ballots in the first four hours of voting, comprising almost 60% of the 13.3 million registered voters, the election commission said.
Barisan Nasional, while credited with bringing economic development and political stability, has also been tainted by allegations of corruption.
But it remains to be seen whether Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition, comprising parties of different ethnicities and religions, can persuade voters to choose an alternative government.
Najib Razak, 59, said he was confident that Malaysians would retain his coalition and even return the two-thirds parliamentary majority Barisan Nasional lost in the 2008 polls.
During the last four years, Najib Razak said during a campaign rally on Thursday, the coalition had proved it could “protect and benefit all Malaysians”.
“The task of transformation is not over yet,” he told supporters in his home state of Pahang on Saturday.
Mohamed Rafiq Idris, a car business owner waiting to vote in the central state of Selangor, told the Associated Press news agency the ruling coalition had made “some mistakes” but he believed it would do its best to take care of the people’s welfare.
But first-time voter Bernie Lim, a banker, said: “I grew up recognizing that my parents voted for the present coalition at almost every general election. This time, they voted for the opposition. People do change.”
Anwar Ibrahim, 65, has said people’s clamor for change means that Pakatan Rakyat will emerge victorious.
“People have enough of this semi-authoritarian rule, of complete [government] control of the media, of strong arrogance, of power and endemic corruption,” he told AP in an interview.
He advised supporters “to remain calm, not to be provoked, not to take the law into their own hands, support the process”.
“Unless there’s a major massive fraud tomorrow – that is our nightmare – we will win,” he told AFP news agency.
Allegations of election fraud surfaced before the election. Some of those who voted in advance complained that indelible ink – supposed to last for days – easily washed off.
The opposition has also accused the government of funding flights for supporters to key states, which the government denies.
Independent pollster Merdeka Center has received unconfirmed reports of foreign nationals being given IDs and allowed to vote.
The international organization Human Rights Watch said there had been well-planned attacks against the country’s independent media ahead of the polls.
It said on Thursday that readers were unable to access several online news sites providing coverage of opposition candidates.
Officially, just 18 foreign electoral observers are in Malaysia. They are joined by 1,200 local observers from 17 non-governmental organizations.
The electoral commission said on Saturday that the foreign observers comprised six each from Indonesia and Thailand, and two each from Burma, Cambodia and the ASEAN secretariat.