Malaysians began voting in a general election on Saturday, with the ruling coalition seen as certain to retain power but the prime minister's leadership hanging in the balance.
The multi-racial Barisan Nasional coalition has effectively ruled since independence from Britain in 1957, thanks in part to a weak and ideologically divided opposition, but it is bracing for a potential protest vote at these general elections.
Voting began just after dawn at about 8,000 polling booths across the Southeast Asian nation, from remote villages on Borneo island to the main towns and cities of peninsular Malaysia.
Big crowds flocked to opposition rallies during the campaign, especially ethnic Chinese and Indian voters unhappy with Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's coalition, which is dominated by politicians from the Muslim majority of ethnic Malays.
Ethnic Chinese and Indians make up around a third of the population of this Southeast Asian nation and many complain of discrimination by the government in favour of Malays, in terms of education, jobs, financial assistance and religious policy.
Abdullah warned voters on the election eve they could cause instability and chaos if they abandoned Barisan Nasional -- an oft-repeated warning that is usually code for racial turmoil.
In 1969, after Barisan suffered a major electoral setback, race riots broke out in which hundreds of people were killed and a two-year state of emergency followed.
"You have to vote for our future. You have to vote for our children...," Abdullah said in a TV interview on Friday night. "What will happen if there is chaos and there is instability?"
Barisan now holds 90 percent of seats in the outgoing federal parliament and political experts say Abdullah's continued leadership could be in jeopardy if his majority falls back below 80 per cent, or around 178 seats in the new 222-seat parliament.
Allegations of vote-rigging
The general elections, which will also decide the makeup of state assemblies, have been tainted during opposition campaigning by allegations of vote-rigging. New York-based Human Rights Watch has also accused authorities of manipulating the electoral process with limits on free speech and free assembly.
Abdullah said after voting in his home town of Kepala Batas, in a northern rice-growing area, that the opposition was looking to use allegations of electoral fraud as an excuse in case it fared badly at the polls.
"If they are not going to win, that's what they will say," he told reporters, looking relaxed in a blue batik shirt. "I want this election to be a credible election."
After casting his vote on Saturday, the leader of the main opposition Islamist party, Nik Aziz Nik Mat, said his supporters had found a member of the prime minister's main ruling party in possession of 28 identity cards for use in electoral fraud.
Nik Aziz's Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) controls northeast Kelantan state, the only opposition-held state, and faces a major campaign by Barisan to win it back after 18 years of PAS rule.
"They appear to be in a state of panic," the elderly cleric, wearing cream-coloured robes and a white turban, told reporters after voting at a school fringed by coconut and banana trees in Kota Bahru, the Kelantan capital.
"If we lose because the people really don't want us, then it's ok, but if we lose because of foul means, then I will do something," he warned. He declined to elaborate.
The final make-up of the parliament is not expected to be clear until near midnight (1600 GMT) on Saturday.