JOHOR BARU, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's ruling coalition won the early results on Sunday in an election that could weaken or even end its 56-year rule, with the majority of seats yet to be decided as it faces an opposition pledging to clean up politics and end race-based policies.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), or National Front, won a string of parliamentary seats in its traditional stronghold of Sarawak state on Borneo island. But the opposition retained economically important Penang state as its leader Anwar Ibrahim sought to build on his alliance's stunning gains in 2008.
With less than a quarter of parliamentary results confirmed in the Southeast Asian nation, the National Front was leading with 37 seats to the opposition's 13, according to the country's Election Commission. A count by the independent Malaysiakini website gave the seat tally as 29 to 21 in favour of the coalition.
Either side needs 112 of 222 parliamentary seats to form a majority, although Prime Minister Najib Razak is under pressure to win back the two-thirds majority that the BN lost in the last national election in 2008. Final results were expected by early on Monday.
The coalition is expected to win, but opinion polls showed a tightening race with Najib struggling to translate strong economic growth and a deluge of social handouts into votes.
Before most votes were counted, Anwar declared victory in a surprise statement that appeared to be a tactic to whip up support. "PR has won," Anwar wrote on his Twitter account, urging the ruling party and the country's Election Commission "not to attempt to hijack the results".
Election officials said voter turnout in the country of 28 million people was about 80 percent, a record high in what could be the most closely contested election in 56 years of rule by the National Front coalition.
The campaign heated up in recent days with Anwar accusing the coalition of flying up to 40,000 "dubious" voters, including foreigners, across the country to vote in close races. The government says it was merely helping voters get to home towns.
There were widespread witness accounts that "indelible" ink, introduced by the government in response to demands for electoral reform, could be washed off voters' fingers easily, enabling some to cast ballots more than once.
The 2008 result signalled a breakdown in traditional politics as minority ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians, as well as many majority Malays, rejected the National Front's brand of race-based patronage that has ensured stability but led to corruption and widening inequality.
SWELLING MIDDLE CLASS
Under Najib, the son of a former leader, the coalition has tried to win over a growing middle class with social reforms and secure traditional voters with a $2.6 billion deluge of cash handouts to poor families.
He can point to robust growth of 5.6 percent last year as evidence that his Economic Transformation Programme to double incomes by 2020 is bearing fruit, while warning that the untested three-party opposition would spark economic ruin.
"The victor or loser of this 13th general election will not be BN or the opposition PR. It will be Malaysia, its people and our children," Najib tweeted on Sunday before casting his ballot in central Pahang state.
Najib, who is more popular than his party, has had some success in steadying the ship since he was installed as head of the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in 2009.
Formidable advantages such as the coalition's control of mainstream media, its deep pockets and a skewed electoral system make it the clear favourite.
But a failure to improve on the 2008 performance, when the National Front won 140 seats in the 222-seat parliament, could threaten Najib's position and his reform programme. Conservative forces in UMNO, unhappy with his tentative efforts to roll back affirmative action policies favouring ethnic Malays, are waiting in the wings to challenge his leadership.
LAST CHANCE FOR ANWAR?
The election represents possibly the last chance to lead Malaysia for Anwar, a former rising UMNO star who was sacked and jailed for six years in 1998 following a feud with then prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, who remains an influential figure.
The 65-year-old former deputy prime minister says his conctions on charges of corruption and sodomy were trumped up. He received a new lease on political life last year when a court acquitted him of a second sodomy charge.
His alliance, which includes an awkward partnership between a secular ethnic Chinese party with an Islamist party, says it presents a viable alternative to BN, given a record of governing in four states it took over in 2008.
It wants to break down a network of patronage that has grown up between the ruling party and business tycoons. The alliance also pledges to replace policies favouring ethnic Malays in housing, business and education with needs-based assistance.
The opposition is riding a growing trend of civil-society activism, which has been most evident in a series of big street protests in recent years calling for reform of the electoral system and huge campaign rallies.
"One for all, all for one - regardless of colour, creed, or religion," veteran politician Lim Kit Siang told a 6,000-strong crowd in southern Johor state, bordering Singapore. "We are all Malaysians, why let racial sentiments provoke us?"
Most people in the crowd were ethnic Chinese, who make up about 25 percent of Malaysians and who abandoned the ruling coalition in 2008. Maintaining momentum among ethnic Malay voters may be more difficult amid warnings from the National Front that they would be at risk from Chinese economic domination if the opposition won.
"I am comfortable with the current situation here," said a 62-year old Malay housewife after she cast her ballot in Johor. "I can't trust the opposition. I don't know them." (Additional reporting by the Reuters Kuala Lumpur bureau; Writing by Stuart Grudgings and Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Jason Szep and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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