Kuala Lumpur: Malaysia on Wednesday announced a general election for May 5, setting a long-awaited date for polls tipped to be its closest ever as the long-ruling government seeks to hold off a surging opposition.
Speaking a week after Prime Minister Najib Razak dissolved parliament, Election Commission chairman Aziz Yusof said balloting would be preceded by a two-week official campaign period kicking off on April 20.
The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has controlled Malaysia through coalition governments since independence in 1957, faces a formidable opposition that promises to end corruption, cronyism and authoritarian rule.
The opposition surged to its best showing ever in the 2008 vote, shattering the ruling regime`s decades-old aura of invincibility.
Under UMNO, multi-ethnic Malaysia became a regional economic success story while enjoying relative harmony between majority ethnic Malays and its sizeable racial minorities.
Prime Minister Najib hopes to extend the government`s unbeaten run in the polls by focusing on his steady economic stewardship and a torrent of cash handouts and other sweeteners to the public.
"This election is a choice between sticking with a competent, reform-minded government and risking our prosperity on a fractious, inexperienced opposition," a spokesman for Najib told AFP after the polling date was announced.
But the opposition has won support with pledges of a more open era, and has enjoyed unprecedented freedom to get its message past state-controlled mainstream media via the Internet.
Speculation over a date for the polls had reached fever pitch in the past two years but Najib set the stage on April 3 by dissolving parliament, which was due to automatically expire at the end of the month.
The UMNO-controlled Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition has romped to thumping wins in every election so far, but lost its powerful two-thirds majority five years ago.
It now faces the fight of its life against the Pakatan Rakyat (People`s Pact) opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
The charismatic Anwar was handpicked by authoritarian ex-leader Mahathir Mohamad as his heir but was ousted from government in 1998 and jailed in a power struggle between the two men that left Malaysian politics deeply polarised.
With a tight contest forecast, both sides have competed to lure voters with a range of electoral promises that have worried economists.
Najib upped the ante again on Saturday, unveiling a manifesto pledging more cash for the poor, and cheaper cars and houses amid cost-of-living concerns.
Pakatan -- which has promised free primary-to-university education and to boost incomes -- swiftly accused Najib of copying its pledges.
The opposition and electoral reform advocates complain the contest is not free and fair due to a system skewed in the government`s favour, and have warned of outright fraud, noting what it calls widespread irregularities in the electoral roll.
The government denies the allegations.