People in Malaysia head to the polls on Saturday in snap elections that are a referendum on the rule of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his long-ruling National Front coalition. The campaign has been dominated by concerns over ethnic strife in the Southeast Asian nation, which has long been seen as a model for racial harmony among its Muslim Malay, ethnic Chinese, and Indian populations. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Kuala Lumpur.

Hundreds braved the pouring rain, chanting the word "reformasi" - or reforms - at an opposition rally in the pre-dawn hours of Friday in the Malaysian capital. Opposition supporters want reforms to end Malaysia's race-based political system and corruption.

Public unhappiness over economic and racial issues has diminished the popularity of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his long-ruling Barisan Nasional - or National Front - coalition in recent years. The economy has been growing at a healthy annual rate of six percent, but inflation and talk of a U.S. economic slowdown is causing unease.

Perhaps the most burning issue, however, is that of race relations in this country of 25 million that has long prided itself as a model of harmony among its majority Muslim Malays, and its ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. That image suffered last year when police jailed Indian activists and used tear gas and water cannon to put down protests by thousands of ethnic Indians who marched against what they said is marginalization of their people by Muslim Malays.

Some ethnic Indians and Chinese complain of religious intolerance, and they say set-asides favoring Muslim Malays have deprived them of educational and economic opportunities.

Malaysia's main political parties consist of single ethnic groups under the National Front coalition, which has ruled the country since 1957. Challenging the race-based political system is Anwar Ibrahim, a charismatic former deputy Prime Minister.

Anwar cannot run in these elections. He is barred from politics until next month due to a conviction on charges of corruption that were leveled against him after he fell out of favor with the National Front ten years ago. He has been campaigning for his People's Justice Party. He tells VOA why he believes the government decided to call elections just one month before he would be eligible to run.

"The intention is of course to deny me my right to participate in the elections. We are not due to have elections until the middle of next year," he said. "They say that the political climate is very, secure. Why do they need to rush, except to deny me my right to participate?"

Malaysian electoral law gives the government the option to call new elections within five years of the previous election. The last poll was in 2004.

Observers say voter apathy may be a problem on Saturday, with some Malaysians interviewed on the streets saying they will not bother to vote because they see no hope for change. They are also discouraged by reports of vote-buying, controls on the media, and restrictions on freedom of expression.

Some people say they will vote on Saturday because they want to challenge the status quo and let the government know about their grievances. Fadzli Muhammad, a 23-year-old accounting student and a Muslim Malay, says he is concerned about Malaysia's future if ethnic divides are not addressed.

"Islam encourages us to unite [with] each other. From the unity we can develop as a good nation. If there is no cooperation, I think the nation will not develop," he said. "Without unity, our country will self-destruct."

Analysts expect Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's ruling coalition to win again, but with fewer seats than in the last elections when it captured control of more than 90 percent of parliament.