Malaysia's prime minister dissolved Parliament on Wednesday to call for general elections that will pit a coalition that has ruled for nearly 57 years against a resurgent opposition whose pledge to form a cleaner government has resonated with millions of citizens.
The polls are widely expected within a month after Prime Minister Najib Razak said in a nationally televised address that he had obtained royal consent from Malaysia's constitutional monarch to dissolve Parliament immediately.
Najib used his speech to urge more than 13 million eligible voters to give his National Front coalition a strong mandate and to reject opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance.
"Do not gamble with the fate of our children and grandchildren," Najib said, adding that he planned to travel to "all corners of the country" in the weeks ahead to speak to voters and win their confidence.
The Election Commission is expected to meet within a week to set a polling date and determine when formal campaigning can begin. The National Front's current five-year mandate had been scheduled to end April 30.
At stake are 222 seats in Parliament and control of 12 of Malaysia's 13 states. The National Front won 2008 elections with less than a two-thirds parliamentary majority, its poorest results in more than five decades of uninterrupted rule since independence from Britain in 1957.
Anwar said the opposition People's Alliance was "cautiously optimistic" that it could win federal power, renewing his promise to "ensure a credible, responsible and clean government."
"I believe Malaysians are prepared for change," Anwar said at a news conference. "Unlike in other countries (where) change is through uprising, in our case, it would be translated through the ballot box, God-willing."
Najib marked exactly four years as prime minister Wednesday. He succeeded Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was pressured to step down after being blamed for weak leadership that contributed to the National Front's 2008 electoral setback.
Anwar's opposition alliance wrested control of several states five years ago by pledging to curb long-entrenched problems including corruption and racial discrimination in this ethnic Malay Muslim-majority country.
Najib has intensified efforts to win back support with measures such as channeling more funds to the poor and abolishing security laws that were widely considered repressive.
Most analysts believe Najib's coalition will have the upper hand because of its support in predominantly rural constituencies that hold the key to a large number of Parliament's seats.
But Anwar's opposition still has a chance, said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank.
"I don't think (the opposition) will actually win, but the possibility is certainly bigger than before" in 2008, Wan Saiful said. "It will be a make-or-break election for Najib. If Najib doesn't perform better than in 2008, what moral authority does he have to remain in power?"
Senior opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang said Najib should allow the opposition fairer access to television and newspaper coverage throughout this month's campaigning. Malaysia's mainstream media, the primary source of information for rural voters, are mostly owned by or linked to political parties in the ruling coalition.
Najib's administration is also likely to benefit from substantial public goodwill after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on financial handouts for students, low-income families and government employees in recent months.
The opposition insists the handouts are an electoral ploy and that the National Front has failed to weed out graft and economic mismanagement.
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng contributed to this report.