By Siva Sithraputhran
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Thursday that tens of thousands of "dubious" voters may have been flown in to key states to boost the government's chances in this weekend's election, an accusation denied by the ruling coalition.
Electoral fraud is a sensitive issue in Malaysia, where a civil society movement has sprung up to demand electoral reforms in increasingly large street protests. A narrow victory by the ruling coalition on Sunday could trigger allegations of cheating and calls for more street protests.
Anwar said the Prime Minister's Office had been involved in arranging charter flights for voters supplied by national carrier, Malaysian Airlines. He accused the government of flying at least 40,500 individuals since April 25 on chartered flights from the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak to mainland areas.
While Sabah and Sarawak are government strongholds, the mainland peninsula is home to several closely contested states, such as Selangor near Kuala Lumpur which fell to the opposition in 2008.
"The timing of this surge in arrivals and its sheer size naturally raise the question of whether they have been transported here surreptitiously to vote in favor of the National Front," Anwar said in an emailed statement.
A government spokesman denied the accusation. He said the flights were part of a normal "get out the vote" campaign and had been paid for by "friends" of the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition.
The National Front faces a resurgent opposition led by Anwar, who was finance minister in the 1990s and later jailed for six years on corruption and sodomy charges he said were trumped up. It could be the closest election since the Southeast Asian country won independence from Britain in 1957.
Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor, secretary general of the United Malays National Organisation, which dominates the ruling coalition, said the flights were normal electoral practice.
"The flights in question were organized and paid for by friends of Barisan Nasional. They brought registered voters to their home districts so that they may vote in the upcoming election," he said in a statement.
Anwar released what he said were leaked e-mails from Malaysian Airlines officials showing the flag carrier had proposed a schedule to ferry voters and election workers in chartered planes from Sabah and Sarawak to mainland Malaysia.
Reuters has not been able to independently verify the authenticity of the documents. Malaysia Airlines declined to comment.
Anwar's alliance surged to its best-ever election result in 2008, gaining support from ethnic Chinese and Indians disillusioned with race-based policies favoring majority Malays and discontent over a lack of political and economic reform.
Sabah is a key entry point for foreigners from the Philippines and Indonesia, who have fuelled a five-fold surge in Sabah's population since the early 1970s and turned it into a vote bank for the ruling coalition.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry is currently under way in Sabah to investigate allegations that immigrants were given identity cards in exchange for voting for the government under a secret plan approved by former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad in the 1980s.
(Additional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage and Yantoultra Ngui; Editing by Stuart Grudgings and Nick Macfie)