Voters Cast Ballots in Bellwether Malaysian State Election

MALACCA, Malaysia (AP) -- Voters wearing masks cast their ballots on Saturday in a Malaysian state election that pits Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob's Malay party against its allies in the government for the first time amid a widening rift.

The polls in southern Malacca state is seen as a bellwether for voting behavior that could shape political alliances in national elections, which are not due until 2023 but are widely expected to be called next year.

The state election is a three-way fight between a camp led by Ismail's United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, its ally parties Bersatu and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, and the opposition alliance led by Anwar Ibrahim.

UMNO and Bersatu, the two biggest parties in the ruling alliance, are at loggerheads but have agreed to share power until the next general election.

Voters queued up a meter (3 feet) apart outside schools and other polling centers to have their temperature scanned before being allowed to cast ballots for 28 state assembly members. A total of 112 candidates are contesting, leading to tight races for all the seats. Nearly half a million people are eligible to vote until 5:30 p.m.

The Malacca polls were called after the UMNO-led state government collapsed when four lawmakers pulled their support. A victory would be a boost for UMNO, which had led Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957 but was ousted in 2018 elections by Anwar's reformist alliance following a multibillion-dollar financial scandal.

Anwar's alliance, however, crumbled last year after Muhyiddin Yassin withdrew his Bersatu party and formed a new government with UMNO, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and several others. Muhyiddin was forced to resign in August after infighting cost him majority support. Ismail, who was Muhyiddin's deputy, then took office, bringing back UMNO's rule.

Most observers believe the main fight is between UMNO and Anwar's opposition alliance as Bersatu lacks grassroot strength.

A big win for UMNO could potentially lead to challenges in ruling party states, accelerate plans to call for early general elections and may prompt the Islamic Party and other parties supporting Bersatu to review their alliance, analysts said.

Campaigning in Malacca, which is around a two-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur, has been muted amid strict rules as the country emerged from a virus lockdown last month after a successful vaccination rollout. Political rallies and house visits were banned, taking the campaigning to social media and making results unpredictable.

The polls come as Malaysia gradually reopens its borders to vaccinated travelers. The country has vaccinated more than 76% of its population, including most adults. Daily infections have dropped dramatically to around 6,000 from its peak of more than 20,000 in August. The country has recorded 2.57 million cases and nearly 30,000 deaths.