'No rigging'

 

He promised a clean and fair election, rejecting accusations of widespread vote-rigging in favour of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition.

 

"There are no phantom voters"

Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman, election commission chief

Abdul Rashid also defended the campaign period, which has always been short in Malaysia, as "more than sufficient".

 

"Can anyone prove to us there is rigging? Nobody has given any proof. Rigging means you change the contents of the ballot box - can this happen?" he said. "There are no phantom voters."

 

Analysts say the ruling coalition is almost certain of getting a fresh mandate despite widespread public anger over inflation, crime and racial discord.

 

They said Abdullah called for the elections more than a year before they were due because the mood of the electorate was unlikely to improve in that period.

 

The early date was also to strike before the economy - his main selling point - slows down.

 

BN leaders said late on Wednesday that they were confident of retaining more than two-thirds of the vote.

 

Anwar 'sidelined'

 

The coalition, led by Abdullah as leader of the main ethnic Malay-based component party Umno, is expected to win the polls but with a reduced majority.

 

Abdullah's popularity has steadily waned since winning 90 per cent of the popular vote in 2004, particularly after recent crackdowns on street demonstrations that highlighted the increasing discontent among minority groups claiming racial inequality.

 

Anwar accused the prime minister of
running scared in calling early polls [AFP]
In denouncing the timing of the polls, Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, said Abdullah's move to call early polls was to sideline him.

 

Anwar, the adviser of the opposition party Keadilan, was banned from standing for office after being convicted and jailed in 1998 for corruption.

 

He will only become eligible to run for office in April.

 

He said Abdullah also called for early polls after his approval ratings had dropped to an all-time low.

 

"Malaysians are hard-hit by rising prices, rampant crime, endemic corruption and heightened ethnic tensions. The longer it [the BN] waits, the more seats it stands to lose in the general election," he said.


"Denying me the opportunity to contest demonstrates that the four-year track record of the Abdullah administration has been so banal, disappointing and characterised by failure that it can ill-afford to take any chances by allowing for a truly democratic electoral process."

 

Anwar also said that the elections would not be fair or free.

 

"There is no access to the media in Malaysia, the list of voters is still being challenged and there are hundreds and thousands of phantom voters."

 

Indian campaign

 

Ethnic Indian activists said on Wednesday that they would gather thousands of supporters outside parliament in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, to hand roses and a protest note to Abdullah.

 

S Manickavasagam, a spokesman for the Hindu Rights Action Force, said police refused to give them a permit because the group was not a registered body and the gathering could disturb public peace and security.

 

"It is a peaceful gathering. We are only asking for two hours. There will be no speech, no banner - only roses. We also have our own marshals to direct traffic. There is no reason for them to deny our right to assemble," he said.

"If the PM doesn't want to see us, he can send a representative. The rose campaign will go ahead as scheduled with or without permit."

 

The vote on March 8 will be to elect 222 federal and 505 state legislators.

 

There are 10.9 million registered voters in the country.