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Malaysian Voters to Elect New Parliament, State Assemblies Sunday

In Malaysia, voters are preparing to go to the polls Sunday to elect a new Parliament and 12 state assemblies. The governing coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is expected to retain control of the federal government and most state assemblies, but a heated contest is expected for the votes of ethnic Malays, who make up 60 percent of the population.

Exhausted candidates rallied supporters late into the night Saturday on the final day of the week-long campaign.

Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said the country's 7,500 voting centers are ready, and strict measures are in force to prevent vote tampering. Mr. Abdul Rashid said once the ballots have been counted, they will be sealed in their boxes for six months and then destroyed.

This is Malaysia's 11th election since independence from British colonial rule 47 years ago.

Ten million registered voters are to choose 219 Parliament members and 505 state legislators.

It is the first popular test for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi since he took over from Mahathir Muhamad, who retired four months ago after 22 years in power. Political observers say Mr. Abdullah needs to score an impressive win to solidify his power within his United Malays National Organization (UMNO), prior to party elections later this year.

UMNO leads a 14-party coalition, which is expected to retain its two-thirds majority in Parliament and to continue to dominate most state governments. However, many people are watching the contests in northern Malaysia's ethnic-Malay heartland, where UMNO is trying to recover from losses in the last elections to the opposition Islamic Party (PAS).

PAS, which advocates an Islamic state in Malaysia, won control of its second state, northeastern Terengganu, in 1999 and tripled the number of its seats in Parliament to 27. This time, it is seeking to win control in two northwestern states, Kedah and Perlis. UMNO, on the other hand, is fighting hard to regain control of Terangganu.

Mr. Abdullah has gained popularity by launching a campaign against corruption and instituting greater transparency in the allocation of state contracts. In addition, the prime minister, who has a degree in Islamic studies, has also sought to promote moderate, tolerant Islam in a country where more than one-fourth of the population is non-Muslim.