PAS wins by-election

Big setback for ruling Barisan Nasional whose candidate loses by a margin of 2,631 votes

By Carolyn Hong, The Straits Times

THE ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition yesterday lost the Kuala Terengganu by-election, suffering a serious setback in its quest to win back the support of Malaysians.

Umno's Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh lost by 2,631 votes to Parti Islam SeMalaysia's (PAS) Abdul Wahid Endut, polling 30,252 votes to PAS' 32,883. Independent Azharuddin Mamat got 193 votes.

The convincing margin of 2,631 votes was higher than Umno's win in the March general election, when its MP Razali Ismail won by 628 votes.

Yesterday's by-election was held after Mr Razali died last November.

PAS' victory shows that the BN is slipping in its efforts to win back support even as the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) forges ahead.

'We are growing stronger,' PAS president Hadi Awang said at a press conference last night.

'It shows that cooperation is strong among the parties in the opposition. There is going to be a big change.'

Led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, PR appears to be making inroads despite a serious setback last September, when Mr Anwar failed to topple the BN government as he had threatened.

PAS' victory will most certainly give the opposition ammunition to push its claim to power. Last night, Mr Anwar issued a statement saying that the victory would be a catalyst to opposition supporters to work harder for its success.

Yesterday's polling went smoothly after 10 days of intense but peaceful campaigning. Turnout was a high 79.7 per cent of the town's 80,229 voters, of which 88 per cent are Malays, 11 per cent Chinese and 0.7 per cent Indians.

The opposition's jubilation was already evident last Friday night, when all bets were on a PAS victory. Thousands had turned out on the streets waving flags, shouting slogans of 'Reformasi' and 'Allahu Akbar' (God is great).

The celebrations continued last night at the polling station, with thousands of PAS supporters breaking into cheers at the counting centre when the results emerged.

The winning of the Kuala Terengganu parliamentary seat will not make a difference to the power balance, as the BN still holds 137 seats to the opposition's 82.

The PR needs 28 seats to seize power, and defections do not look likely at the moment.

But it is still a blow to Deputy Premier Najib Razak – who led the campaign – as it is a second loss in a row. The first loss was in Permatang Pauh last August, when Mr Anwar won the seat.

'Of course, this is a setback for us,' Datuk Seri Najib told reporters last night. But he added that the BN would 'not be disheartened by the result', and dismissed the suggestion that the outcome reflected badly on him.

'It's nothing to do with that,' he said.

The loss will also weaken Mr Najib's credibility before he is slated to become prime minister in March.

Finger pointing has already begun within the BN camp: Whispers that the candidate was the choice of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, and not Mr Najib's, have been going around for days.

Polling data released last night also showed that PAS has made only slight inroads in winning support from Chinese voters despite strenuous campaigning by its partner, the Democratic Action Party.

The Chinese vote remained with the BN, suggesting that while the minority vote has moved strongly to the opposition elsewhere, the issue of hudud – Islamic law that punishes offences like robbery with amputation of limbs – still holds sway in Kuala Terengganu.

But the Malay vote shifted in greater numbers to PAS – a blow to Umno, which had tried to win it back with stronger Malay rhetoric.

'PAS and Pakatan have found out that they can hold on to the Malay vote despite BN's efforts to play the racial card,' said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.

'This is significant because it is a rejection on the part of the Malay voters in Kuala Terengganu of the politics of fear.'