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Polls opened in Malaysia's general election Saturday in a vote analysts expect to be tightly contested.

Malaysian voters cast their ballots Saturday in an election that could see opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim take the lead but fall short of a parliament majority, prolonging instability in a country that's seen three governments in four years.

Over 21 million Malaysians are eligible to vote in this election, including 6 million new voters.

About 1.4 million Malaysians aged 18 to 20 are expected to vote for the first time after the government lowered the minimum age to 18 from 21 last year.

Malaysia's turnout fluctuates. In the last polls in 2018, 82.3% out of eligible voters cast their ballots - one of the highest in Malaysia's history.

A high turnout typically tends to favour the opposition, while a lower participation favours the incumbent.

Prime Minister Ismail Sabri's Barisan Nasional, whose linchpin United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) triggered the snap polls, is looking to build on its slim majority following a string of local poll victories.

It comes up against former ally Perikatan Nasional led by ex-premier Muhyiddin Yassin and Anwar's reformist Pakatan Harapan, which is expected by several pollsters to pick up the biggest share of the votes, though still short of a majority.

These coalitions are already negotiating with various minority parties to get ahead in forming government through behind the scenes discussions or public overtures in the media.

Voters on the other hand are looking for whichever coalition can promise economic stability, curb inflation and stop the political chaos.

How Malaysia's election system works

Malaysians vote on Saturday in a closely fought election, with polls predicting a hung parliament as no party or coalition can get the lower house majority needed to form a government. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is forecast in the lead, though coalitions led by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and former premier Muhyiddin Yassin could deny him the majority.

Here is a breakdown of how Malaysian elections work:

The election system

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy in which the king plays a largely ceremonial role, although he has certain discretionary powers.

The general election is held every five years unless the prime minister calls for an early poll.

The election process is "first past the post", meaning the party or coalition that wins 112 of the 222 seats in the lower house can form a government.

In a hung parliament, with no party or coalition winning a majority, rival blocs would need to form new alliances to secure enough seats.

The Election Commission typically declares the results on the day of the election and the prime minister is sworn in the next day. But given the close race this time, it is unclear how quickly a new government will be formed.

Malaysia's turnout fluctuates. In the last polls in 2018, 82.3% out of eligible voters cast their ballots - one of the highest in Malaysia's history. A high turnout typically tends to favour the opposition, while a lower participation favours the incumbent.

The main parties

No party has ever formed a government on its own, and the multiethnic makeup of Malaysian society has a major influence on the composition of coalitions.

There are three main coalitions vying for power, unlike earlier elections when there were two.

Incumbent Ismail's Barisan Nasional is led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a Malay nationalist party that prioritises the interests of the ethnic-Malay majority.

The alliance, which includes smaller parties representing ethnic-Chinese and Indian minorities, governed Malaysia for six decades before it was toppled by the opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance in the 2018 polls due to widespread allegations of corruption.

But UMNO returned to power in 2020 as part of another alliance after the opposition coalition collapsed.

The second main coalition is the multiethnic Pakatan Harapan led by Anwar Ibrahim. It won the 2018 election under the leadership of former premier Mahathir Mohamad but lost power two years later due to infighting.

Former premier Muhyiddin Yassin leads the third alliance, which includes a Malay nationalist party and an Islamist party that has touted sharia law.

PM candidates

With an unprecedented split of the vote among the three coalitions and numerous smaller groups, no bloc is expected to win the majority in parliament's lower house needed to form a government.

Here are the candidates vying for the top job:

ISMAIL SABRI YAAKOB, 62 Incumbent Ismail is the prime ministerial candidate for the Barisan Nasional coalition, which has won all but one election in Malaysia's history.

He was premier for just 14 months before a power struggle forced him to call for early polls.

Ismail faces the difficult task of convincing Malaysians to vote for Barisan despite corruption charges against some of its leaders.

Former Barisan leader and ex-premier Najib Razak is in jail for the multi-billion-dollar 1MDB graft scandal, which cost the coalition the election in 2018.

Ismail is part of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) political party, which leads Barisan and prioritises the interests of the dominant ethnic-Malay community in multiethnic, Muslim-majority Malaysia.

A survey released on Friday by independent pollster Merdeka Center showed Barisan lagging behind Anwar's coalition.

ANWAR IBRAHIM, 75 Anwar leads the Pakatan Harapan alliance, the multiethnic coalition that ousted Barisan from power in 2018 for the first time since independence in 1957.

His reformist coalition was on course to take 82 seats of the 222 lower house seats, according to the Merdeka survey, ahead of Muhyiddin's Perikatan Nasional alliance at 43 seats and Ismail's Barisan at 15, but with 45 too close to call.

Anwar has eyed the premiership for more than two decades since he served in Mahathir Mohamad's government in the 1990s as deputy prime minister and finance minister. But the two fell out, with Anwar leading massive protests against Mahathir and calling for reforms.

They buried the hatchet in 2018, coming together to defeat Barisan. But their alliance collapsed less than two years later due to infighting over Mahathir's promise to hand over power to Anwar, returning Barisan to power as part of another coalition.

Anwar spent a decade in jail on a conviction for sodomy and corruption, which he says was politically motivated.

MUHYIDDIN YASSIN, 75 The former prime minister's Perikatan has emerged as a third force in Malaysia. Muhyiddin is winning crucial support from the majority Malays, taking away some voters from Barisan, analysts say.

His coalition prioritises Malay interests and includes the Islamist party PAS, which has called for sharia Islamic law.

He was a crucial player in the collapse of the Pakatan administration in 2020, leading a group of defectors to form a government at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Muhyiddin, who underwent treatment for pancreatic cancer in 2018, has also served as deputy prime minister.

AHMAD ZAHID HAMIDI, 69 While Ismail is the official prime ministerial candidate for Barisan, there is intense speculation that Zahid - who leads the coalition - might seek the job if his alliance wins.

Zahid, a former deputy prime minister, has denied the rumours. He is senior to Ismail in the coalition, which is plagued by infighting.

This month Zahid purged the coalition of some long-time members who were aligned with Ismail, dropping them as candidates for the election.

He is on trial for graft, where he has pleaded not guilty.