Saturday, December 6, 2008

Malaysia's government faces critical by-election test

Malaysia's coalition government faces a by-election next month which analysts say will be a critical test of public reaction to its reform promises after disastrous polls in March.

The by-election in northern Terengganu state, a battleground between the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and the Islamic opposition party PAS, was triggered by the death of a deputy minister.

Election Commission deputy chairman Wan Ahmad Wan Omar announced Friday that the vote would be held on January 17, with parties to declare their candidates on January 6.

After wrangles in the past over allegations of fraud and vote-buying, Wan Ahmad said that MAFREL (Malaysians for Free Elections) would be allowed to monitor the process.

"We like having MAFREL as observers as it boosts the confidence of people and transparency," he told a press conference.

The vote comes at an unfortunate time for the UMNO, which leads the Barisan Nasional coalition that was humbled in March elections -- losing a third of parliamentary seats and five states to the three-member opposition alliance.

Since then it has been in a state of disarray that is unlikely to be resolved until its annual assembly next March, when deputy prime minister Najib Razak is expected to replace unpopular premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

Infighting and rivalries helped it lose an August by-election that allowed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to return to parliament -- a decade after he was sacked as deputy premier and jailed on sex and corruption charges.

Analysts said the UMNO faces a tough fight against the PAS, which along with Anwar's Keadilan party and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party, makes up the opposition alliance.

"It will be a classic battle between two Malay political parties in a Malay heartland," said James Chin, professor of political science at the Kuala Lumpur campus of Monash university.

"If PAS wins it means the people do not believe UMNO's reform programme. It means their sentiments against the ruling party since the March elections are still there," he said.

"It could also demonstrate that voters do not have confidence in Najib Razak's leadership and believe that UMNO is not capable of any reform."

Najib, who as deputy premier will direct the ruling party's election campaign, has promised to make good on Abdullah's promises of change, which were never realised after he came to power in 2003.

But there are doubts whether the UMNO, which has become plagued by corruption in the half-century it has dominated Malaysian politics, is capable of undergoing the changes that voters are demanding.

The party won the vacant seat of Kuala Terengganu in March, but only with the slimmest of majorities.

"There is no escape but face the Kuala Terengganu by-election, which is wholly unexpected and could not have come at a worse possible time for UMNO and Barisan," the Star newspaper said in an analysis.

It said that a major factor would be the 11 percent of Chinese voters among the more than 80,000 eligible to vote. Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian communities abandoned the coalition in the March polls.

A victory would be a major boost for the PAS, which lost control of Terengganu state in 2004, after having held it for just one term and alienating voters with extreme measures such as enacting Islamic "hudud" laws.

Since then it has dropped its hardline rhetoric and tried to reach out to Malaysia's minorities who are alarmed over rising "Islamisation" in the multicultural country.

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