‘People are thirsting for change’

Malaysian opposition's ambitions boosted with by-election win

Today Online – The Malaysian opposition's ambitions of seizing power have been given a major boost with a by-election win that observers said yesterday seriously undermined the ruling coalition.

Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which is part of a three-member opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, snatched a Parliamentary seat from the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition in the north-eastern city of Kuala Terengganu on Saturday, with a significant majority of 2,631 votes.

The result, which does not alter the balance of power, shows the government has failed to claw back support after the disastrous March 2008 general elections.

"The victory is proof that the people are truly thirsting for change," said Mr Anwar, who seized five states and a third of Parliamentary seats from the government last year.

The decisive win in Kuala Terengganu was due to a swing towards the opposition among Muslim Malays — highly significant for the ruling party United Malays National Organisation, which for half a century has been kept in power by the majority community.

Calls for reform from within the coalition came swiftly, with former Finance Minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah saying the coalition has been "humiliated" once again. He said that despite the general election results, which were the worst in the government's history, it has "either not heard the call for fundamental change, or is unable to respond to it".

Former Premier Mahathir Mohamad said yesterday the BN's crushing defeat was a vote of no confidence in the leadership of outgoing Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

He warned deputy Premier Najib Razak, who is due to take the top job in March, must not repeat the mistakes of Mr Abdullah, who voters punished in last year's general elections for failing to introduce promised anti-graft reforms. "I think Najib is not to be blamed for (the by-election loss) but if he continues to elect or support corrupt leaders, then I think he will lose the next general election," he said.

Political science professor James Chin at Monash University in Malaysia said: "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." But Mr Najib has played down the importance of the by-election. "Of course, this is a setback for us … We will not be disheartened by the result," Mr Najib said on Saturday, rejecting the suggestion that the outcome reflected badly on him.