Malaysians vote, with power at stake for first time

Julia Zappei
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Opposition supporters cheer and wave party flags in Seberang Jaya, Penang on May 4, 2013

Opposition supporters cheer and wave party flags as they wait for the possible arrival of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in Seberang Jaya, Penang on May 4, 2013

Malaysia's upstart opposition scored some successes Sunday in early returns from a bitter election fight against a regime that is battling to avoid losing power for the first time in history.

The opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim picked up a handful of new parliamentary seats and was claiming at least a half-dozen more with only a quarter of the results out six hours after polls closed.

Malaysians voted in record numbers in the general election, the first in the country's history to offer the prospect of a possible change of government, but the hotly anticipated day was dogged by accusations of electoral irregularities.

The Barisan Nasional (National Front) ruling coalition -- which has ruled since independence in 1957 -- raced out to an expected early lead as results for its strongholds in the east of the country came in first.

It captured 39 seats to 16 for the three-party Pakatan Rakyat (People's Pact) as of 1500 GMT, according to the Election Commission (EC).

But Pakatan celebrated the addition of several new seats and expressed increasing confidence as results trickled in.

The Election Commission said a record 80 percent of the multi-ethnic country's 13 million registered voters -- or more than 10 million people -- had turned out. Analysts have said high turnouts could benefit the opposition.

"There is clearly, undeniably, a major groundswell and a major shift among the population across ethnic lines," Anwar, 65, said after he voted earlier Sunday in his constituency in the northern state of Penang.

"Inshallah (God willing), we will win."

Voters swamped the Internet with accusations that Prime Minister Najib Razak's government sought to steal the election, as indelible ink that he touted as a guarantee against fraud was found to easily wash off.

The complaints added to a host of opposition allegations of fraud that have raised the spectre of a disputed result.

Najib's 13-party Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition is favoured to barely keep power.

But the charismatic Anwar, a one-time heir-apparent to leadership of Barisan, led Pakatan to historic gains in 2008 polls and the bloc is now gunning for a landmark victory.

Pakatan has gained traction with pledges to end ruling-party corruption and authoritarianism, and to reform controversial affirmative-action policies for majority Malays that Anwar says are abused by a corrupt Malay elite.

Najib has offered limited political reforms but a largely stay-the-course vision for the mainly Muslim nation.

The ink was introduced for the first time and touted by Najib as proof of his commitment to fair polls. It is applied to a person's finger to show they have cast ballots, preventing multiple voting.

But voters like Halim Mohamad, 77, said the ink washed right off even though it is supposed to last several days.

"This is cheating. I was shocked when it came off," he told AFP after voting in Penang, adding that Election Commission officials shrugged it off.

The opposition had already alleged numerous irregularities including a charge that tens of thousands of "dubious" and possibly foreign voters were flown to key constituencies to sway results. The government denies the charge.

Anwar was deputy premier until his ouster in a 1998 power struggle with then-premier Mahathir Mohamad, and his jailing for six years on sex charges widely viewed as trumped up.

He later brought his pan-racial appeal to the once-divided opposition, dramatically reversing its fortunes.

Najib's ethnic Malay-dominated regime retains powerful political advantages, including control of traditional media, key institutions and an electoral landscape which critics say is biased.

"It's a tight run. But I'm not scared, I'm excited," retiree H.Y. Ong said of the race before voting in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

"The times have changed, they (the government) need to change. Money politics should be controlled," he added, while not divulging his voting preference.