Huge Crowds Reported in Malaysian Polls

STORY UPDATED PERIODICALLY.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim announced on his twitter feed tonight that he will hold a press conference at 9 pm to announced that his Pakatan Rakyat coalition has the necessary seats to form a government, and warned against any attempts on the part of the rival Barisan Nasional to steal the election. Whather that's true or not remains to be seen. Fragmentary results show the Barisan has won 14 of the 222 parliamentary seats to the opposition's 3. However, the fragmentary results show that the Democratic Action Party, the ethnic Chinese component of the opposition, may be on its way to destroying the Malaysian Chinese Association outright. DAP candidates appear to be besting MCA candidates across the board, especially in Penang, the DAP's stronghold. Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the party, is also winning his gamble to take on the Barisan in Johor, although results are fragmentary.

Voting ended officially in Malaysia's 13th general election at 5 pm today with heavy turnout that kept some voters in polling places after the close. The election commission announced that 80 percent of 12,992,661 voters turned out, the highest total in Malaysian electoral history, besting the 78.9 percent recorded in 1964.

Voting got underway early in the morning with large crowds forming long queues in many places, trying to avoid the forecast rain over most of the country during the afternoon. One polling place in Kuala Lumpur reported a queue a kilometer long at 8 am. Police reported massive traffic jams on roads close to polling stations.

The race has been cast as nearly neck and neck. In recent days before the voting, both coalition leaders, Najib Tun Razak and Anwar Ibrahim, have raced across the country virtually nonstop in the effort to woo voters. Although there were reports of scattered violence and occasional bombings, the electoral process seemed relatively smooth, with some bureaucratic hangups. Huge crowds have met the candidates, with one rally in Penang reportedly topping 100,000 people. Rallies of up to 20,000 people have been reported routinely.

Nearly two years in gestation as Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak repeatedly delayed dissolving the parliament, the 13th general election leaves the three-party Pakatan Rakyat facing an uphill battle to take over the government. A respected Merdeka Centre poll, taken between April 28 and May 2, found that 42 percent of voters agreed that the opposition coalition should be given the chance to lead the country, while 41 percent opted for the Barisan Nasional coalition that has been in charge for 57 years, one of the longest tenures in a democracy anywhere. Another 13 percent were undecided and 4 percent refused to respond.

Given the built-in advantages of gerrymandering and malapportionment of districts, plus the extensive electoral machinery controlled by the Barisan, that means tough going for Pakatan Rakyat and its leader, Anwar Ibrahim. The Pakatan Rakyat coalition is depending on enormous turnouts to put it over the top, amid credible allegations that the Barisan Nasional was flying in voters from the east Malaysian state of Sabah to attempt to win back Selangor, the rich, heavily populated state that surrounds the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur.

Whatever the outcome, the election appears to inevitably deepen the racial divide in the country, with Chinese and other minority voters completely abandoning the historic governing coalition, abandoning both the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress to side with the largely Chinese Democratic Action Party and Anwar's own Parti Keadilan Rakyat. The largely rural, Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia and Parti Keadilan Rakyat must attract at least 30 percent of ethnic Malay voters to pull off a win.

With former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and other UMNO chieftains delivering a drumbeat of predictions that an opposition win would mean a Chinese takeover of the country, it was questionable today whether that will happen.

Opposition volunteers have monitored the polling stations closely. More and more reports have emerged about phantom voters, in which citizens are challenging "Bangladeshi" and "Burmese" looking "voters" and even chasing them away. However, on investigation some of them have actually been found to be Malaysian and there have been complaints of overzealousness.

At midday, the Electoral Commission reported that total turnout has been 62 percent so far with Kedah having a 61 percent turnout, Terengganu 60.9 percent, Johor 60 percent, Perlis, Penang and Pahang 59 percent each, Perak, Sarawak and Negri Sembilan 58 percent, Sabah 57 percent, and Melaka 55 percent.

A team of 18 foreign observers watched the voting process at various polling centers around Kuala Lumpur, according to the state-owned news service Bernama. Twelve, from Cambodia and Thailand, were accompanied by EC secretary Kamaruddin Mohamed Baria. Observers from Indonesia, Myanmar and the Asean secretariat are also observing the election on the EC's invitation.

Those met at the polling center at SMK Seri Gombak described the process as "accountable", also praising such features as the use of indelible ink and the vetting of voters prior to the ballots being marked, although voters said they could remove indelible ink within two minutes, presumably so they could go back to vote again if they wished.

Pictures show long queues of people waiting to vote in Johor with early morning rain there. Heavy traffic jams are also reported around the country with lots of minor accidents.

Voting initially appeared to be going along smoothly, but as the day progresses, more and more reports are emerging about the cumbersome procedures the Electoral Commission is employing inside the polling stations, which according to voters is delaying the process. Reports are also emerging of people turning up to vote where someone else has already voted in their name.

Video clips recently posted on Facebook show buses of voters arriving in Gelang Patah Johor, where DAP leader Lim Kit Siang is facing off with BN's Ghani Othman, the current Chief Minister of Johor, although the authenticity of these voters can't be verified.

Other photos show money being put into envelopes supposedly to pay voters in Pekan, Caretaker Prime Minister Najib's constituency. Caretaker Chief Minister of Penang Lim Guan Eng held a morning press conference in Air Putih Penang exposing voter payments.

There are also numerous reports that the indelible ink used by the Election Commission, a unit of the Prime Minister's office, to mark the fingers of those who have voted, being easily rubbed off on grass outside polling stations.

Without any reliable public polling available, except for the result predictions of bloggers, news agencies, and the politicians themselves, there are indications that the result could be a very tight "cliffhanger" which might take the country into unchartered territory tonight, if there is no decisive result. However, there is a sense of tension and excitement throughout the country today, where people feel that they are taking part in a turning point within Malaysia.

Elections Commission Chief Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof told reporters that the turnout could be higher than in 2008, which was about 75 percent. "If we can get a turnout of 80 percent or higher, it would be among the highest in the world," he reportedly said. About 50 percent of voters in Sabah had turned out early in searing heat, a state that usually draws about 50 percent of voters overall. The vote in that state could go as high as 75 percent, observers said.

(With reporting from Murray Hunter in Perlis, Joe Fernandez in Sabah and Gavin Bowring in Kuala Lumpur. Some reporting from Malaysiakini)