Mar 7, 2008

ELECTION 2008: Malaysian government in last-ditch bid to counter opposition

"Marilah mari, mari mengundi"

The time is now, cast your vote wisely.

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's ruling coalition made an all-out push Friday on the eve of elections to counter a resurgent opposition which hopes to deny it a two-thirds majority for the first time.

Political observers said the coalition that has ruled for half a century is rattled by signs that minority ethnic Chinese and Indians will defect to the opposition led by charismatic former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.

Newspapers linked to the government, which is dominated by Muslim Malays who make up 60 percent of the population, splashed front-page warnings that the minorities could lose their voice in the multi-ethnic coalition.

"I do not want to form a government that is made up of only one race," Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said of the indications that the Chinese and Indian parties in the Barisan Nasional coalition could be hit on Saturday.

"I hope the status quo is maintained in the interests of all."

Abdullah's government has mounted a savage attack on Anwar in recent days, in what observers said was a sign his Keadilan party is posing a real threat by appealing to voters of all races -- a first in Malaysian politics.

"Anwar has done a good job in terms of being able to organise a national campaign," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia expert at Johns Hopkins University, who is here for the elections.

"Keadilan as a party is trying to reach across the races, and long term that potentially gives it the power to be able to govern."

Anwar and other opposition leaders have been drawing big crowds at political rallies in Kuala Lumpur, campaigning on issues like high inflation and rising crime rates which resonate with voters.

More than 7,000 Malaysians of all races braved the pouring rain to gather in a village outside the capital Thursday night to hear Anwar speak, standing transfixed despite the thunder and lightning.

"You can cheat as much as you want, but you cannot change the will of the people," he roared, drawing chants of "Reformasi, Reformasi", the battle cry that emerged after his 1998 dismissal and jailing.

Anwar was convicted of sex changes and corruption, charges he said were politically motivated. The sex count was later quashed but the corruption conviction makes him ineligible to stand for office until April.

Meanwhile, Abdullah is attempting to shore up support from minorities concerned over the rising "Islamisation" of Malaysia and decades-old discrimination policies that favour Malays.

"The tone is becoming increasingly defensive," Welsh said. "They've moved from trying to focus on their rhetoric, to attacking the opposition which shows a real sense of concern."

Opposition parties warn that the polls may not be a fair fight, saying they are concerned over fraud including phantom voters and manipulation of postal votes in tightly contested seats.

Steven Gan, founder of online news portal Malaysiakini, said that activity on the site had risen dramatically in recent months particularly after unprecedented protests by ethnic Indians last year.

"I think that definitely you can sense there is a heightened interest, but whether this will be translated into votes is another issue," he said.

Welsh said the opposition parties had a good chance of doubling their presence in the new 222-seat parliament to 40 seats, with most gains from the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and the Islamic hardliners PAS.

The opposition parties, which have formed a loose alliance, are aiming for 75 seats which would break the coalition's two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the constitution at will.

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