Malaysia's ruling coalition suffered a stunning blow in weekend polls, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in nearly 40 years and conceding four states to a resurgent opposition.
The result puts a question mark over the future of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who said in the early hours of Sunday that the Barisan Nasional coalition could form the next government but declined further comment.
"I will issue a statement and give my views after everything is over. That is all I have to say," the visibly exhausted prime minister told reporters at the headquarters of his United Malays National Organisation party.
Asked if the results were a vote of no confidence in his leadership, which has been criticised as weak and ineffective, Abdullah responded: "Maybe. There are a lot of messages from the people."
Barisan Nasional, which has governed Malaysia for half a century, won 137 seats in the new 222-seat parliament but had needed 148 to form the two-thirds majority that allows it to amend the constitution at will.
The Keadilan party of former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who has made a spectacular political comeback after his 1998 sacking and imprisonment, won 31 seats for the biggest opposition presence in the new parliament.
The Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP) won 28 and the Islamic party PAS won 23.
In an unprecedented result, the states of Kedah, Penang, Perak and Selangor all fell into the hands of the main opposition, while PAS extended its hold on Kelantan which it had ruled with a razor-thin majority.
It was the worst defeat the ruling coalition suffered since 1969, when it last lost its two-thirds majority in a result that was followed shortly after by serious racial clashes.
Abdullah had won a landslide victory in 2004 polls after taking over from veteran premier Mahathir Mohamad, but analysts said he was being punished this time for high inflation, rising crime rates and mounting ethnic tensions.
Minority voters are concerned over the growing "Islamisation" of Malaysia and are angry at the government's refusal to drop affirmative action policies for Muslim Malays that provide advantages in housing, education and business.
"It's an overwhelming protest vote against the government. It shows a maturing society which doesn't necessarily vote solely upon racial lines," said Tricia Yeoh, director of the Centre for Public Policy Studies thinktank.
"They are voting according to principles instead and are practising priciples of mature democracy."
While Malaysia's minority ethnic Indians and Chinese had been expected to turn away from the government, pollsters said the coalition also suffered a loss of support from the majority Muslim Malays who form its bedrock.
In the outgoing 219-seat parliament, there were 199 lawmakers from Barisan Nasional -- an alliance of 14 race-based parties -- with 12 from DAP, six from PAS, one from Keadilan and one independent.
Rights monitors and opposition leaders had warned that the coalition could manipulate the vote in tightly fought seats.
Concerns over electoral fraud triggered a clash between PAS supporters and police in northern Terengganu state. Authorities using tear gas to disperse some 300 people and 22 people were arrested.