Opposition hails victory

(AP) – MALAYSIA'S opposition on Sunday hailed a victory in a parliamentary by-election, declaring support for its campaign to topple the government has gained strength nearly a year after landmark national polls.

Opposition leaders and analysts also said Saturday's win by the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party in northeastern Terengganu state was a vote of no-confidence for Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, just three months before he takes over as premier.

The Islamic party, which is part of a three-member opposition alliance led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, defeated the National Front coalition with a significant majority of 2,631 votes, the Election Commission said.

This reversed the government's 628 majority in general elections last March. The seat fell vacant after the incumbent, a National Front member, died in November.

Mr Anwar said the victory, which increased opposition seats in Parliament to 83, showed momentum for political reform had gained strength, after his People's Alliance won a third of parliamentary seats and control of five states in national polls last year.

'The victory is proof that the people are still thirsty for change,' he said in a statement.

The by-election results will not change the National Front's control of Parliament, where it still has a comfortable majority.

But Saturday's defeat nevertheless dealt a blow to the government, which had hoped to recapture support after its losses last year. It was the second consecutive electoral loss after Anwar won a by-election in September to return to Parliament as opposition leader after a 10-year gap.

'The results are disastrous for Najib. This was a battle between an incoming prime minister, Najib, and a wannabe prime minister, Anwar. Najib will be much weaker when he takes power,' said James Chin, a political science professor at Monash University in Malaysia.

Mr Najib has played down the importance of the by-election.

'This is a setback for us … (but) we will not be disheartened by this result,' he said late on Saturday. The National Front will do some soul-searching and accept the defeat as a signal that it has to change, he added.

The National Front's popularity plunged last year amid growing complaints by ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities of racial discrimination. Many ethnic Malays also backed the opposition in general elections last March because of dissatisfaction with rising prices, corruption and crime.

Mr Chin said Saturday's results marked a personal victory for Mr Anwar, who sought last year to seize power through defections but failed to get any lawmakers to switch sides.

'Anwar's star is still rising. It shows voters still support his reform agenda,' he said.

Mr Anwar has promised his government would be corruption-free and treat all races equally. He pledged to do away with an affirmative action program for Malays and abolish a law that allows detention without trial. — AP