KUALA LUMPUR – When Malaysian voters cast ballots in Sunday’s general election, it will be the first time in the country’s history that they do so without knowing the eventual winner.
The ruling coalition headed by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) is among the world’s longest-serving governments, unbeaten since independence in 1957 thanks to decades of economic growth and authoritarian rule.
But the rising People’s Alliance (Pakatan Rakyat) opposition bloc has tapped into UMNO fatigue with promises to end authoritarianism and corruption, and many observers say the vote is hard to predict.
“It’s going to be really close. I think (the ruling coalition) will win but with a reduced majority. But there is a real chance Pakatan might do it,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Malaysian think tank IDEAS.
Controlled by the Muslim ethnic Malays who make up 55 percent of Malaysia’s population, UMNO’s National Front ruling coalition has vastly greater resources and a chokehold on traditional media.
Premier Najib Razak can tout steady economic growth of 5.6 percent in 2012 and a torrent of populist handouts as he seeks his first mandate, having been installed by UMNO when it pushed out his predecessor over a setback at the ballot box in 2008.
But the multiracial opposition led by charismatic former Deputy Premier Anwar Ibrahim can no longer be considered a pushover since it seized a third of Parliament in 2008, tripling its seats and shocking the country with its best showing ever.
With Anwar vowing a “Malaysian Spring,” the three-party opposition can claim the momentum and point to success governing the four states it won in 2008.
It pledges a national shakeup, including reform of policies favoring Malays in business and education that irk the sizable Chinese and Indian minorities and are criticized as a drag on national competitiveness.
Anwar has also promised to free state-controlled traditional media and break cozy ties between politics and business.
Sensing the mood, Najib has made cautious reforms, including replacing some repressive laws. But despite solid personal approval ratings, surveys show his government’s image has not improved.
“The reality is that UMNO has not reformed in the key areas needed — corruption, arrogance of power, racial inclusion and a fundamental vision for where to take the country,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics expert at Singapore Management University.
The National Front holds 135 of Parliament’s 222 seats to the People’s Alliance’s 75, and a reduced National Front majority is widely forecast. But dozens of seats are considered too close to call.
The stakes are high for both sides.
A National Front loss would threaten a Malay elite accustomed to political dominance and its rich business perks.
Najib, meanwhile, is under pressure to improve on 2008′s showing and could face a career-ending UMNO leadership challenge if he fails, party insiders say.
If the opposition fails to win, it must confront life after Anwar, who says he would step aside as its figurehead in the event that the bloc falls short.
Anwar was once UMNO’s heir apparent but was ousted in 1998 and imprisoned for six years on sex charges after a power struggle with his boss, then-Premier Mahathir Mohamad.
The episode transformed Malaysian politics, giving the previously ineffectual opposition a formidable campaigner with top government experience. But the People’s Alliance has no one else approaching his stature and pan-racial star power waiting in the wings.
The occasionally fractious alliance includes Anwar’s multiracial party, a secular party dominated by ethnic Chinese, and a conservative Islamic party representing Muslim Malays.
“This election will decide Malaysia’s future,” Najib said in emailed comments, determining who will “set the direction for Malaysia through the 2020s and beyond.”