Winning in Malaysia

(Wall Street Journal Asia) The opposition coalition won another parliamentary seat in a by-election on Saturday. It's yet another warning to the ruling Umno that voters want a change.

Saturday's poll in Kuala Terengganu was held in Terengganu, a Malay-majority region and traditional stronghold of Pas. That party lost the seat in 2004, but regained it in Saturday's by-election. The candidate, Mohammed Abdul Wahid Endut, campaigned on a platform promoting Shariah law and fighting corruption. The ruling Umno campaigned on a more secular platform and promised old-style Umno populist spending to create jobs. Pas won Saturday's election by 51.9 per cent to 47.7 per cent.

The victory can be seen as a referendum less on Islamic law than on the ruling party, which has lost popular support over its perceived corruption and handling of the economy. It is a blow, too, to the aspirations of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, who campaigned heavily for the Umno candidate.

The win also exposes the tensions inherent in Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition, which includes his PKR, the mostly Chinese DAP and Pas. Although all parties pitched in to help Pas win on Saturday, Anwar has said repeatedly that the opposition supports moderate Islam. That rubs uneasily with Pas's pro-Shariah platform.

The opposition coalition is still 52 seats short of a majority in Parliament, though Saturday's win brought it one seat closer. In Parliament and in future polls, Anwar would do well to focus his efforts on the broad-based issues that mattered in Kuala Terengganu — corruption and economic liberalisation — rather than Pas's Islamic bent.

That's a winning formula for all of Malaysia. — MI