KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Malaysia's leader warned voters Thursday that their country risks economic collapse if the opposition wins national elections that must be held by mid-2013.
Prime Minister Najib Razak opened his ruling party's annual congress with a forceful speech urging supporters to brace for what is expected to be one of Malaysia's most intensely fought elections since independence from Britain in 1957.
Najib's United Malays National Organization is determined to reverse setbacks from 2008 polls that triggered the multiethnic government coalition's worst performance in more than five decades of uninterrupted rule.
Najib accused the opposition in a nationally televised speech of banking on false promises to sway voters. He predicted the national debt would soar and Malaysia would lose its economic sovereignty within three years if the opposition wins power.
"Without accurate, careful and critical evaluation, changing the government would be like trusting the mouse to repair the pumpkin or the wolf to safeguard the sheep," Najib told thousands of party officials at their headquarters.
He told party loyalists to battle hard for every vote, stressing that the polls would "be no ordinary elections; it will be the deciding point for the destiny of our people and country."
Opposition lawmaker Tony Pua rejected Najib's warning, saying the prime minister was "desperate to scare" voters with his claim that an opposition-led Malaysia would become like Greece.
"It is the (government) with its continued profligacy that will cause the country to be bankrupt if it is voted back into power," he said.
Critics say Malaysia's ruling coalition had become complacent and corrupt before it lost its longtime two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2008 and was forced to surrender control of several key Malaysian states to opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's three-party alliance.
Najib must dissolve Parliament by the end of April to pave the way for the next elections. Speculation about early polls has swirled for nearly two years, but the prime minister has refused to reveal his plans for the election's timing.
Government authorities have intensified efforts to win back support over the past year with measures such as channeling more funds to the poor and abolishing security laws that were widely considered repressive.
The opposition insists that only a change of government will resolve problems like graft and racial discrimination. But most analysts believe Najib's ruling coalition will still have the upper hand because of its entrenched support in predominantly rural constituencies.
Associated Press writer Sean Yoong contributed to this report.