Kuala Lumpur - Malaysia on Wednesday announced a general election for 5 May, 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 chairperson Aziz Yusof said balloting would be preceded by a two-week official campaign period kicking off on 20 April.
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 spokesperson for Najib told AFP after the polling date was announced.
Deeply polarised politics
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 3 April 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.