KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysian politicians Saturday began formal campaigning for May 5 general elections that will determine if Prime Minister Najib Razak's governing coalition can extend nearly 56 years of unbroken rule amid a resurgent opposition that accuses it of corruption and authoritarianism.
Election candidates submitted nomination papers at their home constituencies, paving the way for the start of a 15-day campaigning period. Najib, escorted by dozens of supporters waving party flags, submitted his nomination papers in Pekan in central Pahang state. His rival Anwar Ibrahim is running in northern Penang state, one of four states controlled by the opposition.
About 13.3 million Malaysians will be eligible to cast ballots to fill 222 seats in the federal Parliament and choose representatives for 12 state legislatures.
"It will be a close fight. Anwar's opposition alliance has shown to the public in the last five years that they can be a credible alternative to the National Front," said James Chin, political science lecturer with Monash University in Malaysia.
Anwar's three-party People's Alliance currently holds slightly more than one-third of Parliament's seats and controls four of Malaysia's 13 states after the National Front endured its worst electoral results ever in 2008 polls amid public discontent about corruption and racial discrimination.
Najib, who is seeking his first mandate at the polls since taking power in 2009, has portrayed himself as a reformer. He has taken steps to revamp his government's image, including abolishing security laws widely considered repressive, implementing economic programs to woo investment and offering better public welfare including financial handouts for civil servants and the poor. The economy grew 5-6 percent annually in the last three years.
To boost the National Front's appeal, one third of the candidates running for parliament seats are new. A number of long-serving ministers including several scandal-tainted officials have been dropped, including Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen and former Women's Affairs Minister Shahrizat Jalil who have been accused of corruption.
"I am confident that the ... team contesting will transform Malaysia to greater heights," Najib said in a Twitter message Saturday.
Anwar said he was cautiously optimistic of winning federal power.
"We believe that the increasingly louder calls for change towards a new and better Malaysia represent the people's awakening with a regime change that will take place via the ballot box," Anwar said in a statement earlier this week.
His alliance has promised a clean break from a corrupt past by weeding out endemic graft and crony capitalism linked to decades-old affirmative action policies for majority ethnic Malays. He also promises to free up civil liberties and raise Malaysia's global competitiveness.