Malaysians voted on Saturday in general elections expected to hand the ruling coalition another victory but with a reduced majority, as ethnic Chinese and Indians shift to the opposition.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi won a landslide victory in 2004 polls, but now faces public anger over high inflation, rising crime rates and ethnic tensions in the multicultural nation.
Asked when he cast his vote whether the Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Malays who dominate the population, would retain a critical two-thirds majority in parliament, he said only: "Insya-Allah (God willing)."
Pollsters say the opposition, rallied by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim who has stormed back onto the political stage after being sacked and jailed in 1998, could double its presence to 40 seats in the new 222-seat parliament.
But they say the three opposition parties, which have formed a loose alliance, are unlikely to claim the 75 seats they need to prevent the coalition from amending the constitution at will.
Rights monitors and opposition leaders have warned that the coalition, which has ruled for half a century, may manipulate the vote in tightly fought seats, but Abdullah rejected those allegations Saturday.
"Enough of that. They are just looking for excuses in the event they do not win," he said in his Kepala Batas constituency in the island state of Penang, where he arrived dressed in the blue of the Barisan Nasional.
"I am confident that everything will go on smoothly today. The question of rigging need not arise. Why are they thinking about that? Do they think we are cheats?"
Police laid on a heavy security presence at the Kepala Batas polling station, in a village surrounded by paddy fields and coconut trees, and dotted with traditional stilted Malay houses.
"We should have a strong government. I am happy with Abdullah's leadership," said Ann Idris, 46, a Muslim Malay woman wearing the traditional headscarf who was lining up to vote.
"There is no need for a strong opposition to play the role of check and balance. The government can police itself."
Elsewhere in Penang, Anwar cast his vote at the Permatang Pauh constituency held by his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail who formally heads their Keadilan party.
The charismatic 60-year-old is banned from holding public office until April but plans to re-enter parliament within months by contesting his wife's seat in a by-election.
Anwar said he was convinced the opposition could break the government's two-thirds majority, but he was concerned that electoral fraud could skew the result.
"I am disgusted with the fact the prime minister chooses to deny there is any possibility of rigging," he said, adding he had evidence of cheating in several districts including multiple balloting and "phantom" voters.
"We shall shake this government this time," he told reporters. "Now the Malays, Chinese and the Indians support us. We should teach these cheaters a lesson."
A major battleground in the campaign is the northern state of Kelantan, the only state the Barisan Nasional (BN) does not hold and which it is hoping to snatch from the Islamic party in power there for 18 years.
"I am very confident of winning if there is real democracy in Malaysia and there is transparency in the system," Kelantan chief minister Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat said as he cast his ballot in the state capital Kota Bharu.
"PAS should retain control because we have done a good job, honoured God's word and carried out Islamic doctrines," said Niz Aziz, who is also the spiritual leader of the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Dressed in his trademark white flowing robes and turban, he warned against a vote for the coalition, which has promised billions of dollars in development funds for the impoverished state.
"If BN takes control, they will dismantle everything we have done and there will be mixing of the sexes and the removal of halal practices," he said. (AFP)
Malaysians vote in elections expected to clip government's wings