Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia - Campaign season has officially kicked off in Malaysia, where voters will soon take part in an election considered by many to be the most critical in the country's history.
More than 13 million voters will decide on May 5 between two political coalitions that insist that they can deliver the political and economic reforms called for by an increasing number of Malaysians.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), which has led the country in one form or another since independence in 1957, is campaigning on a series of reform initiatives introduced by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, who took office four years ago.
The BN has bolstered its support with pledges to provide an annual cash handout to the country's poorest, as well as offering book vouchers and various bonuses for civil servants and employees in government-linked companies.
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Despite the ruling party's promises, however, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat still stands its best-ever chance of winning. The coalition has promised what it claims will be a new and more just Malaysia, pointing to its record governing two of the country’s richest states.
The opposition has vowed to reduce the cost of living by running a more efficient administration, tackling corruption, and cutting the price of water and other utilities.
"This is arguably the most important election in our history," Tunku Abidin Muhriz, founder and president of IDEAS told Al Jazeera.
"You have to ignore large parts of the manifestos; they’re just populist. The most important thing about what will change is the relationship between government and institutions such as the civil service and the police. The other thing is the opening up of civil society. This is irreversible."
Party workers from both sides have been busy hanging banners and bunting along roads, junctions and buildings since parliament was dissolved on April 3.
Opposition politicians, denied access to the traditional media, have taken to the streets, staging walkabouts with voters and nightly rallies in their constituencies. With candidacies now official, campaigning will start in earnest.
Some of the toughest battles are expected in the southern state of Johor, the birthplace of BN's dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation. Fierce contests are also expected in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak, as well as some of the more densely populated areas of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur.
Lembah Pantai, with an electorate that reflects the ethnic diversity of Malaysia as well as its growing wealth gap, is one of the capital's main battlegrounds. The constituency here includes both the wealthy suburb of Bangsar and swathes of low-cost housing for some of the poorest people in the city.
The area was the scene of one of the major upsets of the 2008 poll, when the opposition's Nurul Izzah Anwar ousted three-time incumbent Shahrizat Abdul Jalil.
BN is determined to wrest back the seat with its candidate Raja Nong Chik, a welathy businessman and the current federal territories minister.
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As an indication of the rising political temperature, Nurul Izzah's campaign workers have been threatened and some of her banners torn down.
Bersih, an organisation that campaigns for free and fair elections, has said there have been at least eight reports of violence across the country since parliament was dissolved on April 3. In the worst incident, a man was stabbed while hanging party flags in the east coast state of Terengganu.
"I think this will be the hottest election ever," said Jerald Joseph, one of seven members of Bersih's special committee on an electoral code of conduct.
"The level excitement is so high, but from the incidents we have seen so far it does seem that it'll also be one of the dirtiest."
BN revealed its candidates for federal and state seats during the past week, with many senior politicians giving way to a new generation of contenders.
Although the ruling party hopes the new faces will bolster its message of change, the addition of a candidate known for racist views has left many sceptical.
Keith Leong, an analyst with KRA Associates in Kuala Lumpur, said the candidate list exposed the struggle for change not only within the BN, but Malaysian politics as a whole.
"This is an unfortunate motif of how fragmented Malaysia is electorally; both conservative and liberal, rural and urban, fundamentalist and secular," he said. "You end up having to work to please all sides, but end up displeasing everyone."
BN is determined to claw back the support it lost at the 2008 election, when the opposition not only deprived it of the two-thirds majority it had long enjoyed in parliament but also secured control of five of the 13 states in Malaysia's federal system.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on April 17, Najib, who became prime minister after an internal party coup in the wake of the 2008 drubbing, acknowledged the scale of the challenge ahead.
"This will be a very hard-fought, robust election," he said from his office in the administrative capital of Putrajaya. "But I welcome it, because it reflects how far we have come in the democratic process in Malaysia."
A 2012 rally for free and fair elections drew tens of thousands to the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
The demonstration forced authorities to make changes to the electoral rules, including the introduction of indelible ink and the recruitment of independent election observers.
The elections commission failed, however, to accept recommendations for a 21-day campaign period, fair media access and an end to corruption.
Both sides go into the two-week campaign optimistic about their chances of success.
In Lembah Pantai, where Nurul Izzah’s team said they have discovered thousands of "phantom" voters, both candidates arrived to file their papers with hundreds of boisterous supporters. The trees on either side of the building were festooned with bunting and flags.
"I’m confident with the momentum," Nurul Izzah told reporters at the nomination centre.
Supporters waited patiently behind police lines for their candidates to emerge. Many in attendance were in high spirits, with little sign of the antagonism that some analysts had feared.
"Nomination went very smoothly," Tunku Abidin said. "If that level of civility can be maintained, then that bodes well."
Follow Kate Mayberry on Twitter: @kate_mayberry
Source: Al Jazeera