The Malaysian government's delicate arrangements designed to manage the interests and prospects of ethnic groups may be unsettled in Saturday elections.
The incumbent administration will win -- it has won every election since independence in 1957 -- but its whopping majority may be reduced, the ruling party may be plunged into leadership wrangles and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim may seek to revive his political fortunes.
The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition has only lost its two-thirds majority once -- in May 1969 -- prompting a violent reaction from Malays alarmed by the threat to their political dominance. Such a dramatic outcome may not be on the cards this time. But ethnic tensions are high. A broad acceptance of Malay primacy has been a given for a generation. This consensus is now strained.
Thousands of Indians -- who comprise around 8% of the population and are the most economically disadvantaged and marginalised -- took to the streets last year. Protest leaders have been in detention without charge ever since and frustrations continue to run high.
It is the thoughts of the dominant Malays that will prove decisive though. Representing around 65% of the population, quotas and patronage help guarantee them control of political levers and a significant share of economic assets. Fear among Malays about losing their privileged positions may influence pro-government votes.
But frustration over issues such as indecisive leadership and inflation are common to all ethnic groups. The largest street protests in a decade in November attracted lower-income urban Malays -- the bedrock of support for BN leader, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Indications their loyalty to the UMNO is wavering would challenge the basis of the political system.
Alternatives may be limited. The opposition parties have yet to make much political headway against entrenched interests. But the People's Justice Party is hoping to capture the votes of the discontented. Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister imprisoned in the late 1990s on charges of sodomy (since overturned) and corruption, is angling to get back onto the political stage.
He is banned from contesting a political position until April, no doubt influencing, in part, the timing of the poll. But he wields considerable influence. His daughter and wife, who holds the only party seat in the current assembly, are contesting seats and a by-election later would give him a chance to re-enter parliament.
As with other parties, campaigning is focused issues such as poverty alleviation, easing price rises, ethnic and religious issues and crime. The Parti Islam se-Malaysia has dropped an Islamist agenda in favour of social priorities, and is fielding its first non-Muslim, female, candidate. For over a decade it has held the economically significant Kelantan -- the only state held by the opposition.
The opposition faces an uphill battle in the elections -- dubbed 'grossly unfair' by Human Rights Watch. The polls have not been without controversy already. The Election Commission has been criticised for reversing plans to use indelible ink -- the house of the body's chief was subsequently attacked with red paint. Although assured of some kind of victory, the government will have to brace for further direct political action by its increasingly emboldened opponents as the country enters uncertain economic and political times.