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Malaysia vote closes, PM’s leadership at stake
8 Mar 2008, 1552 hrs IST,REUTERS
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PERMATANG PAUH/MALAYSIA: Tension rose in a Malaysian general election on Saturday after opposition supporters squared off against police in two places over suspicions of vote fraud that could tarnish the poll’s outcome.
Polls closed at 5 pm (0900 GMT), with state news agency Bernama saying 58 per cent of 10.9 million eligible voters had cast ballots by 3 pm.
Malaysia’s ruling coalition seems certain to win the poll, called before it was due in May 2009 and widely viewed as a referendum on the rule of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The electoral system itself was also on trial as opposition parties accused the multi-racial Barisan Nasional coalition of vote-rigging to continue its five-decade-long grip on power.
In the worst incident of violence so far, police in northeastern Terengganu state fired tear gas and water cannon to scatter a mob that attacked them with sticks and stones, smashing the windscreens of three police cars, local television said.
Police arrested 22 people, mainly supporters of the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), which supports Islamic law that punishes offenders with stoning and amputation.
The fracas erupted after PAS supporters confiscated identity cards seized from bus passengers they suspected were unregistered voters. On the northern island of Penang, a crowd of about 300 people, mostly opposition supporters, taunted riot police interspersed with chants of “Reformasi and “God is Great”.
A phone survey on election eve showed non-Muslim voters were set to deliver a protest vote against the coalition, said Ibrahim Suffian, of local market-research firm, the Merdeka Center. It even showed signs of a protest vote among the Muslim majority, which is made up almost entirely of ethnic Malays and generally votes for the main ruling party UMNO.
“We saw some numbers that indicate that there might be a swing among Malay voters towards the opposition,” he said, adding many of Abdullah’s supporters appeared to have stayed at home.
Voting began just after dawn at about 8,000 polling booths across the Southeast Asian nation, from remote villages on Borneo island to the main towns and cities of peninsular Malaysia.
The final result is unlikely to be clear until 1600 GMT on Saturday.
The economy has been growing at a 6 per cent annual clip but inflation and a likely US economic slowdown is causing worries.
“The people are already fed up,” said Sharil Azrul, an Internet entrepreneur on the northern island of Penang. “Prices have been rising. We want the opposition to have a chance.”
Race relations have become a big issue in a country that has long been proud of the racial harmony among its majority Muslim Malays, ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Opposition rallies have drawn big crowds, especially Chinese and Indian voters unhappy with Abdullah’s Malay-dominated coalition.
Chinese and Indians make up around a third of the population of 26 million and some complain the government discriminates in favour of Malays, when it comes to education, jobs, financial assistance and religious policy.
Abdullah told voters on election eve they could cause instability and chaos if they abandoned Barisan Nasional — an oft-repeated warning that is usually code for racial turmoil.
Barisan holds 90 per cent of the seats in the outgoing federal parliament and political experts say Abdullah’s continued leadership could be in jeopardy if his majority falls back below 80 per cent, or around 178 seats in the new 222-seat parliament.
Abdullah said after voting in his home town of Kepala Batas, in a rice-growing area of Penang, that the opposition was using charges of vote-rigging as an excuse in case it fared badly.
Former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of Parti Keadilan Rakyat but banned from standing for election because of a corruption conviction, said opposition parties could win a third of federal parliamentary seats despite electoral fraud.
“We will shake the government this time … We will teach these cheaters a lesson,” he said after voting in a Penang seat held by his wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. PAS leader Nik Aziz Nik Mat also accused Barisan of cheating, saying his supporters had found a member of the prime minister’s main ruling party in possession of 28 identity cards.
His party controls Kelantan, the only opposition-held state, and Barisan is going all-out win it back after 18 years of PAS rule.

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