By Joseph Sipalan
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia will hold a general election on May 9, the Election Commission said on Tuesday, in what could be the toughest test of the ruling coalition's 61-year grip on power.
Embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak is under pressure to deliver an emphatic win for the Barisan Nasional coalition, as he struggles to appease Malaysians unhappy with rising costs and a multi-billion dollar scandal at a state fund he founded.
Najib ended months of speculation when he announced the dissolution of parliament last Friday.
The 64-year-old Najib is expected to retain power, but analysts predict a tough fight from his old mentor and the country's most seasoned campaigner, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Mahathir, 92, transformed Malaysia into an industrial nation from a rural backwater during his iron-fisted 22-year rule until 2003. If elected, Mahathir would become the world's oldest prime minister.
"The Election Commission has held a meeting and established that polls must be held within 60 days of the date of dissolution," its chairman, Mohd Hashim Abdullah, told a news conference, adding that the election was set for May 9.
Candidates will be nominated on April 28, meaning an 11-day campaign period, briefer than the 15 days of campaigning in the 2013 election, and the minimum of three weeks recommended by Malaysian electoral reform group Bersih.
Civil rights groups slammed the commission over the weekday poll date, which fuels concerns over low voter turnout.
"Not only is the campaign period only the minimum 11 days, but polling day is on a Wednesday, a working day and a school day," Bersih said in a statement.
"We can now expect to see even lower voter turnout and further hardship for all voters," the group said.
A low voter turnout is expected to benefit the ruling party, opponents have said.
The opposition has said previously that it expects the election to be unfair, after parliament approved plans to redraw electoral boundaries and pushed through an anti-fake news bill, changes critics say will favour Najib.
The government and the Election Commission have rejected these accusations. The commission said on Tuesday it had appointed 14 international observers and 14 local observers.
Mahathir said his party was confident of a win, despite the unusual weekday polling, which meant that Malaysians abroad might not be able to return home to vote.
"We think we will be able to defeat Barisan Nasional in this election," he told a news conference.
Najib has overseen a growing economy buoyed by a recovery in global crude oil prices and increased trade and infrastructure investment from Malaysia's largest trading partner, China.
But he has been plagued by reports of alleged financial mismanagement at state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), including that $681 million (£481 million) was deposited into his personal bank account.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing in connection with 1MDB, but the scandal created a rift with Mahathir, who has become the prime minister's harshest critic.
(Additional reporting by A.Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Robert Birsel and Clarence Fernandez)