Malaysians in six states went to the polls Saturday to vote for state assembly members in elections widely seen as a barometer of support for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim's unity government.
While the elections are unlikely to immediately affect Anwar's current two-thirds majority in parliament, analysts said his hold on power could weaken if his Pakatan Harapan coalition suffers a setback, especially among Malay Muslim voters in the largely Islamic Southeast Asian nation.
More than 9.7 million voters are expected to cast their ballots to elect 245 assembly members in the states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Penang, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan.
Of the six states, Anwar's coalition holds three, while the rest are controlled by an influential rural-based Malay Muslim alliance led by former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
Malays account for two-thirds of Malaysia's 33 million population, which includes large ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Voter turnout was low at between 34-42 percent as of midday, the Election Commission said. The polls close at 6:00 pm (1000 GMT)
At a voting centre in Petaling Jaya outside the capital Kuala Lumpur, factory worker Fazrul Hafiz, 26 said he voted for the ruling coalition's candidates.
"I hope Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will lead Malaysia for a full term until 2027," he told AFP.
Anwar went on a whirlwind tour of the states during the two-week campaign period, promising increased financial subsidies to paddy farmers, economic aid and job opportunities.
After casting his vote Saturday, he urged Malaysians to "return to fostering relationships", local media reported.
The 76-year-old, who had campaigned on a promise of reforms in last year's general elections, is pushing for a more inclusive society where other races are allowed greater participation, while his opponents want primacy of the Malay Muslim majority.
- 'Dire consequences' -
Opposition coalition Perikatan Nasional has expressed confidence in making further inroads.
One key Perikatan member is the Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which aims to create a theocratic state.
Having won 49 parliamentary seats, or more than 20 percent of the 222-member parliament last year, PAS has in recent months stepped up racial and religious rhetoric to shore up support.
"I feel quite excited and I hope Perikatan can win again in this area," said housewife Jamilah Baharin, 48, who voted in Kedah state, a PAS stronghold.
PAS spokesman Khairil Nizam Khirudin told AFP that Anwar "promised a lot but has not delivered".
James Chin, a Malaysia expert at the University of Tasmania in Australia, said the election was being watched for the level of support reformist Anwar draws among Malay Muslims.
He warned of "dire" consequences if Anwar loses even a single state.
"The first direct implication is that he cannot undertake any major reforms or fundamental structural reforms to the economy or to politics," Chin told AFP.
"This will force his hand and Anwar (will have) to adopt a more pro-Malay and pro-Islamic policy. That means the end of reforms."
A loss could prompt MPs to shift allegiances over the next 12 months, "putting a question mark about the future of Anwar as the prime minister", Chin added.
A win, however, would give Anwar "enough political capital to carry out real reforms", Chin said.
Anwar became prime minister last November following a political impasse that saw his party win the most seats in the general election but fall short of the outright majority needed to form a government.
That forced him into an alliance with former foes in the United Malays National Organisation to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority and approval from Malaysia's king to form a "unity government".
The coalition has so far held together in a country that had seen three leadership turnovers in as many years after scandal-tainted Najib Razak was voted out as prime minister in 2018 over massive corruption at state fund 1MDB.