(CNN) — Malaysians are awaiting early results in one of the most hotly contested national elections the Southeast nation has ever experienced.
Turnout has been very high, with the election commission saying 80% of eligible Malaysians have voted. At stake is the fate of one of the world's longest-ruling governments, which has been in power for more than half a century.
The weeks leading up to Sunday's poll saw reports of petrol bombs, texted death threats and beatings. Just days before polling booths opened, the potential for voter fraud was also being alleged after reports that indelible ink used to mark the fingers of advance voters was washing off with water.
"The whole purpose of introducing indelible ink is to cut off multiple voters -- that is now being compromised by low quality ink," said Maria Chin Abdullah from BERSIH 2.0, which campaigns for electoral reform.
"The election commissioner had the cheek to tell us they forgot to shake the bottle. How ridiculous can that be, right?"
In a bid to end the claims, Malaysia's election commissioner staged a public demonstration Thursday to prove his assertion that the ink could not in fact be washed off. It would be used in Sunday's voting, as planned, he said.
Voters were asked to choose between the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which -- with its predecessor -- has ruled the country for 56 years, and Pakatan Rakyat (PR), a loose coalition of opposition parties formed after the last election in 2008.
BN is led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, the son and nephew of former prime ministers, who has held the post since 2009.
PR is headed by Anwar Ibrahim, a former finance and deputy prime minister who served time in prison on corruption and sodomy charges which he says were politically motivated. The first sodomy charge was overturned in 2004 and in January 2012 he was acquitted of a second charge of sodomy, a serious offense in Malaysia which carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
In a hard-fought campaign, both parties have been trying to entice voters with promises of generous government spending, though analysts say it's ultimately a choice between old and new, the status quo and an untested opposition.
"Both manifestos actually do not contain anything policy-wise; there are just little giveaways, they promise you this, promise you that but there's not much policy difference between both of them," said James Chin, professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia's Monash University.
Bubbling under the surface is racial tension that has divided the country ever since BN introduced policies in the 1970s to favor ethnic Malays.
Malaysia's Constitution effectively splits the country between Bumiputera, or ethic Malays, and natives of Sarawak and Sabah, and citizens of mostly Chinese or Indian descent.
According to the CIA World Factbook, just over 50% of the country is Malay, while Chinese make up 23.7% and Indians 7.1%.
There are set government quotas on how much of the country's wealth should be held by Bumiputera. They are entitled to discounts on housing and must be offered enough stock in a company if it wants to be listed on the stock exchange.
The policy has created discontent which the opposition has harnessed in its campaign, saying the policies must be reformed to create a more open society. But one analyst said a PR win would not mean wholesale change.
"Anwar and Pakatan Rakyat are realistic enough to know that if they try to change the foundation of the state then the Malays won't vote for them. They will fine-tune the system so that the system reflects more on need rather than race," Chin said.
So who will win?
At this stage, analysts say it's too close to call.
A poll released by the University of Malaya Centre of Democracy and Election's (UMCEDEL) last week suggested that more than 60% of voters surveyed favored PR. However, the government dismissed the poll and said its own survey showed it was out in front, according to local news websites.
"It's down to the wire now and this survey substantiates that. It's just so hard to tell," said Liam Hanlon, senior political analyst for Cascade Asia, who just two weeks ago predicted a narrow BN victory.
"I think there's a sense among new voters, young voters, urban voters, that BN is the establishment party. Conservatives, they don't relate to young voters," he said.
What's important to voters, says BERSIH's Chin, is whether the election is perceived to be free and fair.
"It's not just the results, people are judging them on whether there is going to be any fair play," she said. "If there is none, people will be very angry. I'm not sure what the people will decide to do -- it is really up to the people to take charge."
Chin of Monash University said voters' response to a potential BN victory will depend on how many of the 222 federal seats it can win.
"If Najib gets within the range of 140 to 150 (seats) people will just give him the benefit of the doubt. But if he goes above 180 they will be demonstrating in the streets. The population will not accept that he has a majority," he said.
From egg-throwing to bombs
The rate and severity of election-related attacks has been escalating since parliament was dissolved on April 3, and observers fear it will only get worse in the days and hours before polling begins.
"For a long time our elections have been peaceful. This is one election where we are not just getting violence, we are getting smear campaigns going on and bribery is quite widely reported," said BERSIH's Chin.
On Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged both coalition parties to "rein in their supporters," who it said had graduated from egg-throwing and paint-smearing to physical assaults and bomb attacks.
And along with the violence, HRW said that cyber attacks had been directed at a number of Malaysian news websites, restricting access to reporting on the election within the country.
"Ensuring everyone can access information without interference is critical if there is to be a level political playing field in Malaysia," said Phil Robertson from HRW. "The government has a duty to investigate and shut down all cyber attacks, interference with ISPs, and hacking so that freedom of expression and the right to receive information is preserved."
From the outside
Foreign investors are becoming increasingly anxious about the election outcome, Hanlon said, because despite concerns about Malaysia's gaping fiscal deficit, the country's economy has performed relatively well amid the global slowdown. The worry is that a change in leadership could undo years of growth.
The World Bank expects Malaysia's GDP to grow 5% this year, boosted by capital projects and domestic spending, as citizens make use of civil servant wage increases and government handouts.
"I don't think foreign investors would all of a sudden pack up shop and leave if BN lost, but I think there's an element of uncertainty about 'how would an Anwar government look?' And they have to take that possibility more seriously," he said.