M’sians vote in by-elections

(AP) BUKIT GANTANG (Malaysia) – MALAYSIANS voted on Tuesday in special elections seen as a benchmark of support for the new prime minister, who has pledged far-reaching administrative and social reforms to revive the government's support.

At stake are one Parliament seat and two state legislative vacancies in diverse areas ranging from a former tin-mining state embroiled in a bitter power struggle to a remote Borneo territory where ballot boxes are being sent on eight-hour boat rides to tribal villagers.

The results will not change the balance of power in the legislatures, but they will be seen as a referendum for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who took office on Friday in a bid to reverse major strides made by the opposition in March 2008 general elections.

'Najib is very good, I think he can bring the country forward,' said truck driver Supramaniam Govindasamy, who voted amid tight police security in the Bukit Gantang parliamentary constituency in northern Perak state.

Nearly 100,000 people are eligible to cast ballots in the three districts. The Election Commission says final tallies are expected late on Tuesday.

Politicians acknowledge none of the results is a safe bet, but International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said Mr Najib's elevation could help sweep the National Front to victory.

'I don't want to be overconfident, but the winds of change are blowing in our favour,' Mr Muhyiddin said late on Monday in Perak, where the National Front seized the state administration from the opposition earlier this year in a legally disputed power grab.

The ruling coalition received a boost from former longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who made a rare campaign appearance on Monday in Perak urging voters to give Mr Najib a chance to vanquish widespread disenchantment in the government.

Mr Najib took over from Dr Mahathir's successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who has been widely blamed for last year's election debacle and two consecutive by-election defeats since then.

Hours after taking office, Mr Najib announced the release of 13 dissidents and terror suspects held without trial under a controversial security law. He has also promised reforms to steer the economy out of a looming recession and to heal widening racial divisions.

On Monday, he urged the largely government controlled local media to be critical of the government's shortcomings without 'fear of consequences.' Opposition leaders have dismissed Mr Najib's moves as a political ploy. However, the opposition's luster has faded over the past year amid slow results in four states it now rules.

Hundreds of supporters from both sides lined roads outside voting centers in Bukit Gantang. Opposition backers waved banners accusing the government of corruption, while their rivals held posters that touted Mr Najib's slogan 'One Dream, One Malaysia.' The National Front governs with less than a two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in 40 years.