Malaysia goes to the polls on March 8 to elect a new parliament.
|Abdullah, right, called for elections on March 8 [EPA] |
The elections come at a time of increasing ethnic and religious tension, street protests and unhappiness over rising prices.
Al Jazeera takes a closer look at the forthcoming elections.
Why is the election being called now?
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, gave no reason but analysts say his Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government wants a fresh mandate before the economy slows down and inflation picks up steam.
Although the next election is not due until May 2009, Malaysia has traditionally held polls in the fourth year of a five-year term.
Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, says Abdullah called an early poll to deny him a chance to contest, as a legal ban arising from a conviction expires in April.
Anwar, sacked in 1998 by Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister at the time, was banned from standing for public office after being convicted in 1999 and jailed six years for corruption.
A second conviction for sodomy was quashed in September 2004.
How free will the 12th general elections be?
Elections in Malaysia have been fraught with allegations of fraud, including missing voters, child voters and "phantom" voters where names of dead people are still found on the voters' list.
The election commission has promised clean, free and fair elections, introducing for the first time the use of transparent plastic ballot boxes and a plan to use indelible ink to deter multiple voting.
Late last year the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections called for electoral reform by staging one of the biggest rallies in more than a decade.
What are the chances of a change of government?
Virtually nil. The opposition hopes to dent the ruling coalition's overwhelming majority in parliament by getting it below two-thirds, a position that allows it to change the constitution.
|The opposition has been unable to form|
a strong front against the BN [AFP]
But political observers say the BN will retain power, albeit with a lower majority. Abdullah's team won more than 60 per cent of the popular vote in 2004 to secure slightly over 90 per cent of the seats in parliament.
Analysts say a swing by disenfranchised ethnic Indians, about 8 per cent of the 26 million population, will hardly cause any damage, but could prove otherwise if combined with enough disgruntled ethnic Chinese votes.
Late last November, thousands of ethnic Indians took to the streets saying they were victims of official discrimination, claims the government has denied with statistics showing a monthly household income of RM3,456 compared to the national average of RM3,022.
Ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians are fed-up with pro-Malay policies under an affirmative action programme that has been in place for more than 30 years.
The policies pervade almost all spheres of Malaysian life, openly favouring Malays at the expense of other ethnic groups.
Other major concerns include allegations of corruption, as well as worries over inflation, the economy and unemployment. Voters are also worried about crime, quality of education, racial and religious discrimination, and the erosion of fundamental liberties.
What sort of challenge do the opposition parties pose?
Fractious, at best. The fairly young Keadilan party led by Anwar claims it is ready to govern but the established DAP says it will be happy to deny the BN its majority.
|Anwar, right, and his wife Wan Azizah|
Wan Ismail [EPA]
Both the Keadilan and DAP have agreed to field one candidate in every constituency in four key states to avoid split votes that would benefit the ruling party.
Keadilan is also courting Islam-based PAS, the third major opposition party, although it is not clear whether PAS will contest in the same areas as the DAP. A DAP-PAS alliance in 2004 backfired and cost the DAP several key seats.
The entry of a number of young professionals, some of whom are prominent bloggers and social activists, into the political fray is also a new trend in this election, promising an element of the unexpected as far as the predictable outcome of Malaysian elections go.
How will the opposition run its campaign, given that the government controls the media?
The 12th general election in Malaysia is seeing a new phenomenon – internet campaigning – with potential candidates using it to reach out to the electorate.
Blogs and online news websites have been used to successfully mobilise mass support for several public rallies staged in Kuala Lumpur in recent months.
Among the related online campaigns is a call to boycott all local newspapers due to their pro-government stance.