Malaysia has dissolved its parliament in preparation for an election that analysts say will be an historically close race. Despite calls for a fair, transparent and peaceful election, there are concerns it will be marred by political violence and irregularities.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the long-awaited dissolution of parliament Wednesday, live on national television.
Prime Minister Razak promised a fair and transparent election and urged all Malaysians to pray for a peaceful race.
"I would like to say and give my guarantee to all Malaysians and all the opposition party that if there is a shift in power, whether in the states or in the country, it will happen peacefull," he said.
The prime minister's United Malays National Organization has dominated politics since independence from Britain, more than 50 years ago.
But, its firm grip on power has weakened, through the years, amid a rising opposition and accusations of cronyism and corruption.
The 2008 elections saw its ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, lose a long-held two-thirds majority in parliament.
Clive Kessler is a professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and long-time Malaysia watcher. He says elections this year could make history.
"These are likely to be more fateful elections than ever before in Malaysia because they're likely to be closer and far more closely contested. And, it's quite likely that, whatever the result, many people will not be happy with the outcome," he said.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim leads a loose coalition of opposition parties challenging the government.
But, activists say the election is already not free and fair. They say government parties weeks ago began campaign activities such as hanging flags and posters.
They also complain voter registration lists remain littered with dubious voters, including dead people and multiple-registrations.
Maria Chin Abdullah is a spokeswoman for Bersih 2.0, a coalition of activist groups re-formed in 2010 to push for electoral reform.
She says Bersih will send observers to polling stations, but they are worried about political violence.
"We see that political violence is really on the rise and that is very worrying because, so far in most of our elections, we have not seen this kind of violence where gangsters are actually pulled in to actually intimidate, agitate, you know, threaten people," she said. "Some of the areas you can't even enter into, people get beaten. So, this is really worrying."
During the announcement Wednesday. Prime Minister Razak told the public not to worry about unrest during the election, saying security forces will do their duty. Although the ruling coalition is multi-ethnic, as Malaysian society has become more diverse, the ruling party has been pushing for unity among Muslim Malays.
Political analysts say the strategy is costing it supporters among non-Malays, especially Chinese who make up a quarter of the population.
Kessler says the ruling party has lost touch and is encouraging conservative elements that may not accept a change in government. He says authorities' handling of the aftermath of the election will be just as important as the election itself.
"There are at the ground level, behind the current government, a lot of ground-level street enforcers of Malay ethno-supremacist beliefs and commitments," he added. "And, even if the results go, perhaps, disappointingly for the prime minister and the government, but the prime minister says he's prepared to accept them, those street activists, those street enforcers will not accept it lightly.”
The exact date of Malaysia's election has not yet been announced but, by law, the election must take place within two months after parliament is dissolved.