KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia's long-governing coalition commanded a formidable lead in national elections Sunday after a record number of voters cast ballots, capturing 80 of the 112 seats it needs to extend its 56-year rule.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance seized 37 of the 222 parliamentary seats in results released so far by Malaysia's Election Commission.
The alliance is the most unified challenge yet to Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front coalition, which has triumphed in 12 consecutive general elections since independence from Britain in 1957.
The opposition hoped to capitalize on widespread allegations of arrogance, abuse of public funds and racial discrimination against the ruling coalition.
Many of the seats won so far were in the National Front's traditional rural strongholds, especially in Borneo, where Anwar's alliance had been hoping to make major inroads to bolster its chances of victory.
More than 10 million Malaysians cast ballots for a record turnout of 80 percent of about 13 million registered voters, the Election Commission said in preliminary estimates. They were also voting to fill vacancies in 12 of Malaysia's 13 state legislatures.
Even if it retains power, the National Front showed clear signs of vulnerability compared to its peak in 2004, when it won 90 percent of Parliament's seats.
The opposition stayed in control of northern Penang state, one of Malaysia's wealthiest territories, and remained strong in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's biggest city, where middle-class voters have clamored for national change.
Three well-known Cabinet ministers and at least one state chief minister were likely to lose their seats. The Malaysian Chinese Association, the second-biggest party in the ruling coalition, saw many of its candidates defeated as Malaysia's ethnic Chinese minority community continued to abandon the National Front.
Some people lined up for more than an hour at schools and other voting centers, showing off fingers marked with ink to prevent multiple voting after they had finished.
The National Front held 135 seats in Parliament before this month. It is anxious to secure a stronger five-year mandate and regain the two-thirds legislative majority that it held for years but lost in 2008.
"The government has made some mistakes but the prime minister has made changes and I believe they (the National Front) will do their best to take care of the people's welfare," said Mohamed Rafiq Idris, a car business owner who waited in a long line at a central Selangor state voting center with his wife and son.
Andrew Charles, a Malaysian businessman working in Australia, flew home to vote for the opposition because he believes it can end corruption and mistrust between the Malay Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese, Indian and smaller minorities.
"I am really fed up. There are more abuses in the system and there is no equality among the races. After 56 years, it is time to give others a chance to change this country," he said after voting in a suburb outside Kuala Lumpur.
Najib says only the National Front can maintain stability in Malaysia, which has long been among Southeast Asia's most peaceful countries.
"Your support is paramount if we are to keep to our path of development, if we are to continue our journey toward complete transformation," Najib said in a statement to voters. "This election is about fulfilling promises, bringing hope and upholding trustworthiness."
An opposition win would mark a remarkable comeback for Anwar, a former deputy prime minister who was fired in 1998 and subsequently jailed on corruption and sodomy charges that he says were fabricated by his political enemies. He was released from jail in 2004.
Anwar and other opposition leaders voiced deep fears Sunday about electoral fraud. Claims of bogus ballots and an apparent ease in which some voters cleaned the ink stains off their fingers dominated social media.
Opposition leaders said the National Front was using foreign migrants from Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia to vote unlawfully. Government and electoral authorities deny the allegations.
"We have in fact jointly condemned this, which is not only fraudulent but virtually attempting to steal the elections, which is unconstitutional, disregard for the law," Anwar told reporters.
The National Front's aura of invincibility has been under threat since three of Malaysia's main opposition parties combined forces five years ago. In recent years the National Front has been increasingly accused of complacency and heavy-handed rule.
Najib, who took office in 2009, embarked on a major campaign to restore his coalition's luster. In recent months, authorities have provided cash handouts to low-income families and used government-linked newspapers and TV stations to criticize the opposition's ability to rule.