|Taib Mahmud, who has ruled Sarawak for 30 years, is in the centre of a series of corruption scandals [Reuters]
Malaysia's ruling coalition has won a crucial election in the country's largest state, ahead of national polls due to be held by 2013.
The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition of Najib Abdul Razak, the prime minister, retained control of timber-rich Sarawak state on Borneo island after hundreds of thousands of voters cast ballots to fill the state's 71-seat legislature.
With counting still under way, the election commission said the National Front had won at least 36 seats for a simple majority.
A strong final result may persuade Najib to call a national election this year.
The three-party alliance of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim nevertheless appeared set to achieve significant gains, clinching eight seats so far to surpass its previous total of seven before the election.
The Barisan Nasional took 63 seats in the last election in the eastern Malaysian state.
Najib and other senior government politicians had spent the past week campaigning in coastal towns and villages deep in Borneo's rainforest.
The opposition has been hampered by a lack of resources to reach indigenous tribal communities in remote districts accessible only by boat or helicopter.
Najib has pledged huge sums of money in development aid to build new roads and improve facilities in Sarawak, which is rich in timber but comprises many poor communities with little access to electricity and modern communications.
When final results are announced, Anwar's alliance hopes to have taken one-third of Sarawak's legislature seats, mainly in urban constituencies, amid public dissatisfaction over alleged corruption and the slow rate of development in the state.
The opposition has been banking on voter frustration over the 30-year rule of Taib Mahmud, the state's chief minister, whom critics say has amassed huge riches through shady timber and overseas property deals.
Taib has denied any wrongdoing, but promised recently to step down within a few years.
The Sarawak state election was Malaysia's biggest since 2008 national polls, when the opposition alliance won more than one-third of the seats in parliament amid complaints of racial discrimination and economic mismanagement by the government.