Malaysia's ruling establishment has been accused of resorting to "gutter politics" as a bruising election campaign starts amid outrage over sex videos and opposition charges of sabotage.
The May 5 vote looks to be a typically hard-fought and polarising Malaysian election as a 56-year-old regime faces the fight of its life against a rising opposition.
But analysts warn negative tactics in the campaign that officially began on Saturday could backfire on the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).
Premier Najib Razak had pledged to oversee a civil election run but advocates for a clean campaign have cried foul over alleged improprieties in what one group has warned will be Malaysia's "dirtiest election ever".
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak waves as he arrives at an election nomination center in Pekan, Malaysia. AP
A top figure in an opposition Islamic party in the Muslim-majority nation was forced recently to deny involvement over an online video claiming to show him in a tryst with a young woman.
The opposition said more such videos were expected, including one purportedly involving Nurul Izzah Anwar, the parliamentarian daughter of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who was himself targeted in a 2011 sex video claim.
Reports of election violence have mounted, mostly involving attacks on opposition supporters, with one man reportedly in a coma after being beaten.
Adverts have run in some areas suggesting the opposition would impose Islamic law on non-Muslims, which the opposition decries as dangerous religious fear-mongering.
"I deplore gutter politics and demand that Prime Minister Najib have the decency to not only condemn but also to ensure those behind the sex videos and political violence face the full brunt of the law," Nurul Izzah told AFP.
Najib's office did not respond to a request for comment.
UMNO became notorious for hardball tactics under authoritarian leader Mahathir Mohamad, who dominated Malaysia for 22 years until retiring in 2003.
The most searing example involved Anwar, who was poised to inherit UMNO's reins but was ousted in a 1998 power struggle with Mahathir that saw Anwar jailed for six years on sodomy and corruption charges widely seen as dubious.
The affair threw Anwar into the three-party opposition, which he led to its best showing ever in the 2008 elections.
Anwar last year was acquitted in another sodomy case and denies any link to the 2011 video.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C-L) celeberates the court decision acquitting him in the sodomy trial with his daugther Nurul Izzah (C-R) outside the court in Kuala Lumpur. AFP
"Many in the public do not think that these videos are credible," Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia politics expert with Singapore Management University wrote in an opinion piece, adding they are "clearly backfiring".
The opposition was thrown into panic when a government agency on Wednesday refused to recognise the leadership of one of its parties, sowing confusion over whether the party could contest the polls.
After an outcry, the agency reversed its position on Friday but the opposition called it a bid to sow chaos in their campaign.
"If they are prepared to go to this extent, I don't believe they will stop at this," said Anwar, who warned of a "tough tumble" for the opposition in the campaign.
Previous elections have been marred by charges of ruling-coalition fraud and vote-buying, and activists warn these polls will be no different.
Najib's government insists the vote will be fair, and top officials vow election violence and other violations will be punished.
In Muslim prayer services on Friday, a sermon approved by a national Islamic body decried unscrupulous campaign methods.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (C) speaks to the media. AFP
"Imagine what will happen to Islam and our beloved country if the practice of slander and cursing others becomes the main medium for campaigning?" it said.
UMNO has developed multi-ethnic Malaysia into a regional economic success under a formula that ensures political supremacy for majority Muslim Malays.
But its grip has slipped recently amid anger over corruption, rising living costs and crime, and UMNO's use of divisive tactics.
Najib signed an "electoral integrity" pledge sponsored by Transparency International in February, but the group last week accused the government of breaking it by abusing government resources to promote the ruling coalition.
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