Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is warning of fraud in the country's coming general elections, which are widely expected in March. VOA's Heda Bayron reports from Hong Kong, where the former deputy prime minister has been visiting.

General elections are not required in Malaysia until next year, but Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is now widely expected to schedule polls as early as March.  The country's opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, says the early date is aimed at preventing him from running for office.

Anwar was deputy prime minister until he was charged and convicted of corruption and sexual crimes in the late 1990's.   The conviction on sexual crimes was overturned, but the corruption verdict was allowed to stand, leaving him barred from running for office until this coming April 8.

In Hong Kong Thursday, Anwar warned of possible "massive" election fraud by the ruling coalition as it comes "under siege" from ethnic and economic discontent and allegations of corruption.

"These elections would be very difficult, and in fact defining for the country," he said.  "Our problem is fair and free elections? If it could be proven that there's massive rigging, I don't think it will fare well for the civility of the country."

His party, Keadilan, says electoral fraud has already begun, such as the registering of "phantom voters" in small constituencies well ahead of the polls.

The United Malays National Organization or UMNO, has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957, and Prime Minister Abdullah has been in office since 2004. He acknowledged Wednesday that his coalition is unlikely to replicate its landslide victory of 2004. At that time, public expectations were high that his government would get rid of corruption and address the needs of the country's poorer citizens.

But recently, Mr. Abdullah's government has had to confront a series of issues - an embarrassing sex scandal involving a cabinet minister, inflation, alleged corruption in the judiciary, and rare protests by ethnic Indians over alleged discrimination.

Keadilan, or the Justice party, fared poorly in the 2004 elections, winning only one seat in Parliament.  Anwar says he hopes public dissatisfaction will work in his party's favor this time. 

"I am optimistic the result would be impressive that it would even shake not only the two-thirds majority (of the coalition in Parliament), but also the strength of the ruling UMNO-led coalition," he said.

Anwar, a former UMNO stalwart, was seen as the coming leader until he and then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad split in the late 1990's.  Anwar was convicted of sodomy and corruption and sent to prison, even though international human rights groups called the charges politically motivated and condemned his detention.

Mr. Mahathir stepped down in 2003, and a court overturned the sodomy conviction and released Anwar the next year. But the conviction for corruption meant Anwar was prohibited from taking part in political activities for four years.