Apr 8, 2009

Malaysia's new PM Najib dealt mixed polls verdict

The recent three by-election results seen as a referendum on support for PM Najib's new leadership and promised reforms.

TAIPING, Malaysia - Malaysia's premier Najib Razak received a mixed verdict from voters Tuesday in three by-elections seen as a referendum on support for his new leadership and promised reforms.

The opposition scored a landslide victory in the most prominent of the three polls, in Bukit Gantang in northern Perak state, where a seat in the national parliament was up for grabs.

But in another vote in Batang Ai on Borneo island, for a seat in the Sarawak state parliament, electoral authorities said that the Barisan Nasional coalition had won with a decisive majority of 1,854 votes.

The result, compared with the coalition's lead of 806 votes in the last state elections, cemented its status as the dominant political force in Borneo, a vast island shared with Indonesia.

However, Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the three-member opposition alliance, said its victory in Bukit Gantang was a show of no confidence in the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for half a century.

Electoral officials said the opposition won with a majority of 2,789 votes -- substantially wider than the 1,566 majority it scored in the last polls a year ago.

"It is a landslide victory," Anwar told AFP. "Malaysians want change, irrespective of the new prime minister."

He said the winds of change were "still blowing" after landmark general elections a year ago in which the opposition gained unprecedented ground, including five of Malaysia's 13 states and a third of seats in parliament.

Najib, who was sworn into power last week, has announced an ambitious agenda to reform the ruling party UMNO, which represents majority Muslim Malays, and repair ties with the nation's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

His pledges were put to the test in the three votes, which provide a snapshot of the public mood, and show whether UMNO has been able to claw back support.

"Collectively, these three contests will illustrate whether Najib and his newly elected team have the support of the Malaysian people," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian specialist at Johns Hopkins University before the results were announced.

The three constituencies, embracing more than 98,700 voters, represent a spectrum of Malaysians, including rural Malays who have been UMNO's bedrock, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, who shifted to the opposition in the March 2008 elections.

"Given the national representativeness of these constituencies, (whoever) emerges as victor in at least two of these contests will have the potential to secure the majority in the next elections," Welsh said.

There are no official results yet from the third vote, for a seat in the state parliament of northern Kedah, where the 13 independent candidates who are standing may take support from the main parties.

The coalition's win in Sarawak was widely anticipated, after it flooded the impoverished electorate with development funds, but political analysts said the loss in Bukit Gantang heaped pressure on Najib.

Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre polling firm said the new leader must now deliver on his promises, in order to win back voters before the next general elections due to be held by 2013.

"He has to be able to tangibly make a difference before Malaysians will swing back support to the coalition," he said.

"What it means is that there is no honeymoon, Malaysians want their changes to happen now, and he cannot expect that rhetoric alone will carry the day."

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