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Mar 8, 2008

Malaysia votes, PM's leadership at stake

Published: Friday, March 07, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia votes in a general election on Saturday, with the ruling coalition considered 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.

Big crowds have 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 ethnic Malay majority.

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 called for a strong turnout among the country's 10.9 million eligible voters.

"This is about the future of our country," he said in a final television interview before the vote. "I can't force the people and please make your choice."

Barisan 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 fell back below 80 percent, or around 178 seats in the new 222-seat parliament.

The polls open at 8.00 a.m. local time (0000 GMT) and the final make-up of the parliament is not likely to be clear until near midnight (1600 GMT) on Saturday.

(Reporting by Mark Bendeich; Editing by Bill Tarrant)


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