Mar 29, 2009

Malaysia's incoming leader tested as by-election campaign kicks off

PM-in-waiting Datuk Seri Najib faces first test as campaign kicks off for three by-elections.

BUKIT GANTANG, Malaysia: Malaysia's incoming premier Najib Razak faced the first test of his leadership Sunday, as campaigns were launched for three by-elections seen as a barometer of his popularity.

Najib was declared leader of the ruling party UMNO on Thursday, promising to introduce radical reforms after disastrous polls a year ago that jeopardised the UMNO-led coalition's half-century grip on power.

The by-elections on April 7 will provide a snapshot of the public mood, and show whether UMNO has been able to claw back support with its plans to tackle corruption and infighting.

Najib's new deputy, Muhyiddin Yassin, kicked off the campaign in the hotspot electorate of Bukit Gantang in northern Perak state, where parties registered candidates for the seat in national parliament that is up for grabs.

"All by-elections are important, especially one that is done after the process of transition of leadership... we want to tell the people this is a team that means business," he told reporters.

Some 15,000 government and opposition supporters turned out for nomination day in the semi-rural district, putting on a rowdy display as they beat on drums, yelled chants and waved party banners.

The other votes are for seats in state parliaments -- one in another northern state Kedah and one in Sarawak on Borneo island which until now has been a stronghold of the UMNO-led coalition.

Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre, an independent polling organisation, said the Sarawak seat would be a tough battle, but that the opposition had a good chance of winning the other two contests.

"Losses will put Najib under some pressure because there's a lot of hope in him to fix the party and turn around the electoral fortunes," he told AFP.

"So if they don't win then he has to really think of different ways to regain voter confidence."

The government and the opposition -- which won a third of seats in parliament and five of Malaysia's 13 states in an unprecedented result in March 2008 elections -- have both tried to lower expectations.

"We will work very hard, we are confident but we are also realistic that we are facing tough odds and we know Najib's tactics -- intimidation, fraud, corruption, bribery," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said last week.

Najib has also tried to play down the ramifications of the electoral clash, likely to take place just days after the formal transition of power from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi which is rumoured to be on April 3.

"The press are making it a referendum all the time," Najib said on Saturday at the end of UMNO's annual meeting, where delegates also selected a new leadership to serve under him.

"It is very hard to say how much (the results) will reflect national considerations. One has to be guarded. We are approaching the by elections with renewed vigour. We will do our level best."

As the son and nephew of two former prime ministers, 55-year-old Najib has an impeccable political pedigree. But he also carries heavy baggage that pundits say could hamper his efforts to reform the party.

Observers say that those factors -- including low popularity ratings and unsubstantiated allegations of corruption and links to a sensational murder -- may see his administration revert to hardline tactics.

Najib hit out at those predictions Saturday, saying he was being prejudged before he even takes office.

"They are malicious, baseless lies. I have given my replies but they persist because it is a ploy by the opposition," he said.

"Give me a chance, judge me by my actions, don't judge me on rumours and baseless allegations. I will reform and I will make changes, I am aware that the people expect me to do certain things."

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