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Malaysia Holds General Elections Dominated by Ethnic Divide

Polls have opened in Malaysia, where voters are casting ballots in snap elections that the longtime ruling coalition is expected to win. The government called the elections to reaffirm its mandate in the face of growing divisions among the country's majority Muslim Malay people and ethnic Indian and Chinese minorities. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Kuala Lumpur.

The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi called the elections months after police cracked down on thousands of ethnic Indians who took to the streets protesting what they say is discrimination at the hands of the country's majority Malay Muslims.

Observers expect Mr. Badawi's ruling Barisan Nasional - or National Front coalition - to win a majority of seats in the parliament as it has every election since independence in the 1950's. But they also say that victory may not come as easily as before.

Scenes of police using teargas and water cannon against thousands of people in the shadow of Kuala Lumpur's gleaming skyscrapers shattered Malaysia's image as a model for ethnic harmony. Among the demonstrators demands: an end to Malaysia's race-based political system - a rallying point for the opposition in the run-up to this election.

The ruling coalition consists of race-specific parties that are supposed to represent the interests of each group. Kannan Ramasamy, an ethnic Indian activist, says many ethnic Indians are disillusioned with the coalition and want a system that will give them equality. "We very much disagree with race based politics and we should be going forward to have unity politics."

A longstanding system of providing set-asides for ethnic Malays has caused resentment among many ethnic Indians and Chinese who believe the affirmative action programs are depriving them of opportunities in education, business, and housing.

The ruling coalition has for years talked about changing the system. "We believe everything has to be done as a process. There has to be a transition process," said Shahrul, executive secretary of the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization, the Malay party in the ruling coalition.

The coalition's selling point in these elections is that its policies have brought stability to Malaysia and made its economy one of the most robust in the region - things Shahrul argues are good reasons to keep the system in place. "When things are progressing very well, we don't see why there needs to be a change," he said.

Analysts say frustration over a lack of change may drive many minorities to vote for the opposition on Saturday, lessening the Barisan Nasional coalition's mandate in the parliament. More than 90 percent of the seats in the outgoing parliament are controlled by the Barisan Nasional.

More than 10 million Malaysia's 25 million people are eligible to vote. Results are expected late Saturday.