Prime Minister Najib Razak’s National Front coalition captured 38 parliamentary seats while opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance seized 16 in early results released by Malaysia’s Election Commission. At least 112 of the 222 parliamentary seats at stake are needed to win federal power.
Many of the seats won so far are in the National Front’s traditional rural strongholds, especially in Borneo, where Anwar’s alliance was hoping to make major inroads to bolster its chances of victory.
The National Front has triumphed in 12 consecutive general elections since independence from Britain in 1957, but it was facing its most unified challenge ever from an opposition that hoped to capitalize on widespread allegations of arrogance, abuse of public funds and racial discrimination against the ruling coalition.
Counting showed the opposition increased its support in key urban constituencies in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s biggest city, and was poised to retain control of northern Penang state, one of Malaysia’s wealthiest territories, where middle-class voters have clamored for national change.
More than 10 million Malaysians cast ballots for a record turnout of 80 percent of about 13 million registered voters, the Election Commission said in preliminary estimates. They were also voting to fill vacancies in 12 of Malaysia’s 13 state legislatures.
Some people lined up for more than an hour at schools and other voting centers, showing off fingers marked with ink to prevent multiple voting after they had finished.
The National Front held 135 seats in the 222-member Parliament that was dissolved last month. It is anxious to secure a stronger five-year mandate and regain the two-thirds legislative majority that it held for years but lost in 2008.
“The government has made some mistakes but the prime minister has made changes and I believe they (the National Front) will do their best to take care of the people’s welfare,” said Mohamed Rafiq Idris, a car business owner who waited in a long line at a central Selangor state voting center with his wife and son.
Andrew Charles, a Malaysian businessman working in Australia, flew home to vote for the opposition because he believes it can end corruption and mistrust between the Malay Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese, Indian and smaller minorities.
“I am really fed up. There are more abuses in the system and there is no equality among the races. After 56 years, it is time to give others a chance to change this country,” he said after voting in a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur.
Najib says only the National Front can maintain stability in Malaysia, which has long been among Southeast Asia’s most peaceful countries.
“Your support is paramount if we are to keep to our path of development, if we are to continue our journey toward complete transformation,” Najib said in a statement to voters. “This election is about fulfilling promises, bringing hope and upholding trustworthiness.”
If the opposition wins, it would mark a remarkable comeback for Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was fired in 1998 and subsequently jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that he says were fabricated by his political enemies. He was released from jail in 2004.
Anwar and other opposition leaders voiced deep fears Sunday about electoral fraud. Claims of bogus ballots and an apparent ease in which some voters cleaned the ink stains off their fingers dominated social media.
Opposition leaders said the National Front was using foreign migrants from Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia to vote unlawfully. Government and electoral authorities deny the allegations.
“We have in fact jointly condemned this, which is not only fraudulent but virtually attempting to steal the elections, which is unconstitutional, disregard for the law,” Anwar told reporters.
The National Front’s aura of invincibility has been under threat since three of Malaysia’s main opposition parties combined forces five years ago. In recent years the National Front has been increasingly accused of complacency and heavy-handed rule.
Najib, who took office in 2009, embarked on a major campaign to restore his coalition’s luster. In recent months, authorities have provided cash handouts to low-income families and used government-linked newspapers and TV stations to criticize the opposition’s ability to rule.