Caption unavailable

Vincent Thian

NEW DELHI - Malaysia faces its most significant election in decades today, as voters choose between the longtime ruling coalition touting its steady hand, and an untested opposition alliance promising economic and political reforms.

The stakes are huge as the old guard digs in, analysts say, fanning fear among its traditional Muslim base that national security, the economy and Islam's central role will be undercut if a more diverse opposition takes power. Malaysia's population is about 60 percent ethnic Malay Muslim, 25 percent ethnic Chinese and 15 percent ethnic Indian.

Most polls say the election outcome is too close to predict. Many analysts in the Southeast Asian country, which gained independence from Britain in 1957, cite growing discontent with a half-century of one-party rule among its 13 million voters.

"This is an important election because it's the first real chance to have a vibrant two-party system with all the implications," said Azmi Sharom, law professor at Kuala Lumpur's University of Malaya. "What we've seen is that the civil service, police feel beholden to one political party rather than to the government of the day."

Prime Minister Najib Razak heads the ruling coalition's re-election bid. He has presented himself as a progressive leader at the helm of the majority United Malays National Organization party trying to guide the nation in the 21st century.

Leading the opposition effort is former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, nominal head of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance, who has vowed to tackle corruption and nepotism, among other issues. Anwar was jailed for six years starting in 1998 on sodomy and corruption charges, which supporters say were a transparent government bid to sideline him politically.

The opposition is strongest among younger, better-educated, social-media-savvy urban Chinese, Malays and Indians who are wary of traditional ethnically divisive politics and feel that greater meritocracy is needed to take the economy to the next level, analysts said.

If Najib loses and presides over his party's first defeat, it is likely to spark a ruling-party leadership fight that could end his career. Najib, 59, the son of Malaysia's second prime minister and the nephew of its third, is something close to ruling-party royalty.

If the opposition loses, Anwar, 65, has vowed to retire. This could lead to the dissolution of the coalition he's forged of pro-reform ethnic Chinese and liberal Islamic parties.