Malaysia's long-ruling National Front, headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, appeared to fend off a fierce challenge and win re-election on Sunday. But the country's opposition leader said the vote was tainted by widespread irregularities and did not reflect the popular will. He refused to concede.
Anwar Ibrahim, whose support base is largely Internet-savvy younger voters, had promised the election would mark a "Malaysian Spring" in the country. Now Malaysians wait to see whether the veteran opposition leader will try and challenge the result in the courts or streets.
"It is an election that we consider fraudulent and the Election Commission has failed," Mr. Anwar told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. Over the past two years, Malaysia has seen a series of unprecedented street protests that saw tens of thousands march to demand for a free and fair election.
The National Front coalition has, under different names, ruled Malaysia since independence 56 years ago, winning all 13 elections the country has held. According to the Election Commission, the National Front won at least 124 of 222 parliamentary seats, enough to form a majority government. The opposition People's Alliance had won 73 seats as of Sunday night, with the other races too close to call.
A record 80 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, reflecting how high the stakes were in what was seen as the country's first election where the result was in some question.
"I hope the opposition accepts the result with an open heart and will allow the democratic process to continue," Mr. Najib told a press conference after his party's win was announced. "The results show a trend of polarization which worries the government. If it is not addressed, it can create tension or division in the country."
The 59-year-old Mr. Najib has been prime minister since 2009 but was running in his first election as party leader. He campaigned on his party's reputation for stable governance and sound economic management, including 5.6 per cent growth in 2012.
Despite the win, three well-known members of Mr. Najib's cabinet looked likely to lose their parliamentary seats. The National Front appeared to do particularly poorly among ethnic Chinese, who make up almost a quarter of Malaysia's population but resent the government's affirmative action policies that favour the Malay majority.
The debate over the fairness of the election seems unlikely to quickly fade. Mr. Anwar told The Globe and Mail before the vote that the government would face "the wrath of the people" if there was evidence the election result had been manipulated.
A tally conducted Sunday by the People's Alliance showed a dead heat, with each coalition winning 80 seats and 62 more seats not yet decided. Two major pre-election polls had given a slight edge to Mr. Anwar's coalition, although the lead was within the margin of error in both cases.
Two hours after polls closed – and as results were only starting to trickle in – Mr. Anwar claimed victory via his Facebook and Twitter accounts. "[The People's Alliance] has won," he wrote. "We urge [Mr. Najib's party] and the [Election Commission] to not attempt to hijack the results."
Once it became clear that the official results would contradict that claim, Mr. Anwar told a press conference about a host of alleged electoral violations.
He said the supposedly indelible ink that was supposed to prevent voter fraud was actually easy to wash off and charged that the results of advance voting by security services had suspiciously favoured the National Front. He also alleged that the government had given identification papers to foreign nationals so they could cast ballots on Sunday, a claim the ruling party denied.
Mr. Anwar also complained of a badly tilted playing field. All mainstream media in the country are blatantly pro-government and critical of the opposition.
Malaysia, which has a population of 28 million, is often hailed as a success story because of its economic success and peaceful multiculturalism. But critics see a state that is only nominally a democracy, with the levers of power always remaining in the hands of a small elite.
The People's Alliance promised major reforms, including the abolition of decades-old policies that give the country's ethnic Malay majority preferential access to civil service jobs, university placements and government contracts. Mr. Anwar had also promised to target official corruption.
The 65-year-old Mr. Anwar was a senior member of the government until he lost a power struggle in the late 1990s. He subsequently spent six years in jail on charges of having sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia. Mr. Anwar was later acquitted of the charges, and has always maintained that they were trumped up by his political enemies.