Malaysia elections chief says polls not far off

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PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia, Nov 19 (Reuters) Malaysia's electoral chief today reignited speculation about an early election, saying the country would go to the polls before long.

It was the Election Commission chairman's second public hint on the timing of the next election, despite assurances from the government that he could not possibly know the poll date.

''It won't be too long from now on. We are ready for elections,'' Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman told reporters when asked about the likely date for the next general election.

An election is not due until May 2009 but Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is widely expected to dissolve parliament and call for fresh polls by early next year.

The ruling coalition, which has governed in various forms since independence 50 years ago, is considered certain to be re-elected, but it faces a swing against it after winning a record number of seats at the last poll in 2004.

Opposition parties, normally split on racial and religious issues, have tried to make political in-roads against the government by galvanising around the issue of electoral reform.

They have teamed up with civil-rights groups to form a lobby group, Bersih, which staged the biggest street protest in a decade this month to voice criticisms of the current electoral system and to demand reforms aimed at free and fair polls.

The Election Commission's Abdul Rashid signalled today that he might yield to one of those demands -- a longer campaign period -- but rejected calls for foreign election monitors.

''There is no provision to accredit anybody from outside,'' he told a news conference he had called to respond to Bersih's criticisms about the electoral system.

He also rejected Bersih's demand for abolition of the postal vote on grounds that it was open to abuse. There are 220,000 postal voters, made up mostly of the armed forces and police.

Malaysia has 10.5 million voters, including one million newly registered voters.

Abdul Rashid said the commission might extend the nine-day campaigning period, which the opposition says is too short and favours the government. ''We will give due consideration,'' he said.

REUTERS SKB SSC1227

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