Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has dissolved parliament ahead of a general election.
Najib, whose National Front (BN) coalition has been in power for 56 years, made the announcement in a televised address on Wednesday.
“The king has accepted my request to dissolve parliament effective April 3,” he said from the administrative capital Putrajaya, adding he hoped his coalition would win a “solid majority”.
Najib will face opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim in what is expected to be a tightly-contested race.
The election is expected to be held on April 27 following a two-week campaign period.
‘Resort to fraud’
Najib’s National Front coalition lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in 2008 elections and faces a three-party opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact) led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Analysts predict the election will be the closest ever amid concerns over corruption, the rising cost of living and crime under the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has ruled Malaysia since independence in 1957.
|Anwar Ibrahim speaks to Al Jazeera|
The 13-member coalition is dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which is led by Najib, who has rebranded it by launching a series of reforms aimed at boosting the economy and granting greater civil liberties.
The opposition made unprecedented inroads in the last polls in 2008.
It currently holds 75 of 222 parliamentary seats and controls four of the country’s 13 states.
“For Pakatan Rakyat it is the best possible chance to offer a viable alternative for democracy and a more responsible government. I think the chances of winning are very good amid signs of desperation in the leadership of Najib,” Anwar told AFP news agency.
“My major concern is they may resort to fraud during the polls and violence in the run-up to the elections,” he added.
Activists and the opposition have demanded free and fair elections, staging several mass rallies calling for change, including a clean-up of the electoral roll which they say is marred with irregularities.
In response, Najib’s government has taken steps including the introduction of indelible ink to prevent multiple-voting and allowing Malaysians abroad to vote by post.
But the opposition says these moves fall short of creating a level electoral playing field.
In his announcement of the dissolution of parliament, Najib urged political parties to observe the rule of law and promised a smooth transition of power if the opposition wins.
|Malaysia opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim leads a coalition of three opposition parties [AFP]|
“If there is change in power, it will and must happen peacefully. This is our commitment,” he said.
He appealed to the electorate not to “gamble” away their votes by choosing the opposition.
Part of the reason the ruling party has stayed in power is due to decades of economic growth.
Malaysia, Southeast Asia’s third biggest economy, grew a better-than-expected 5.6 percent last year spurred by consumer spending supported by pre-election direct cash handouts and other incentives.
But criticism of its authoritarian rule has gained traction and the opposition is promising a new era of political liberalisation and an end to entrenched corruption.
It dismisses Najib’s reforms as window-dressing, and is pledging to stamp out graft and channel money now allegedly given to government cronies towards free education, cutting taxes and increasing subsidies.
It is also vowing to address complaints of discrimination against minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, who account for about a third of the population.