BN loses badly in key by-elections

(The Straits Times) – The momentum that Malaysia’s new Premier Najib Razak had hoped to create came to an abrupt halt last night, after the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) suffered two heavy defeats in three by-elections.

At both Bukit Gantang in Perak and Bukit Selambau in Kedah, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (PR) increased its majorities over the BN.

The only silver lining for a dismal night for the BN was the fact that it easily retained control of its stronghold of Batang Ai in Sarawak, in effect meaning that the opposition had failed to live up to its boast to make inroads into East Malaysia.

The results, which some have painted as a referendum on Datuk Seri Najib’s rule, came just four days after he was sworn in as the country’s sixth premier.

They indicated that the BN has not been able to woo back voters in the peninsula after its huge losses in the 2008 general election.

Najib’s charm offensive in the run-up to the polls also appeared to have had little effect on voters.

He had talked about reforms and multi-racialism, released 13 people detained under the Internal Security Act, and also lifted the ban on two opposition papers.

Najib denied that these were election ploys. In any case, voters did not buy them.

BN’s most significant defeat was in Bukit Gantang. In the general election in March 2008, the opposition won with a majority of 1,566. Yesterday, it almost doubled its winning margin to 2,789, sweeping former Perak menteri besar Nizar Jamaluddin into parliament.

It was a moral victory for the man who used to lead the PR state government, until four of its assemblymen defected and the BN capitalised on it by seizing power – a move that triggered much unhappiness among Malaysians.

PR had lobbied for the state assembly to be dissolved and fresh polls held in the wake of the saga, but this was rejected by the Perak sultan.

With fireworks lighting up the sky after his victory, Nizar said that he plans to return to the sultan to request a dissolution again, to “stabilise the political situation in Perak”.

BN’s Perak Menteri Besar Zambry Kadir, in his response to the poll result, however told Agence France-Presse that the ruling coalition had to “work harder”.

He claimed that Malay votes in Bukit Gantang had increased for his coalition but that support from the Chinese, comprising 27 per cent of the federal parliamentary constituency, “fell sharply”.

In Bukit Selambau, in Kedah, PR’s S. Manikumar garnered 12,632 votes, beating BN’s S. Ganesan who polled 10,229 votes. The majority of 2,403 was slightly higher than the 2,362 polled by the opposition in March last year.

The presence of a record 13 independents, who garnered 1,326 votes between them, did not figure much in the final outcome.

The loss for BN’s candidate from the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) dealt another blow to the constituent party, whose candidates were heavily defeated at last year’s national polls.

BN’s only victory yesterday came in Sarawak, where its candidate Malcolm Mussen won comfortably by a majority of 1,854 votes, polling 3,907 votes against Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) candidate Jawah Gerang’s 2,053 votes.

The figure was more than double the 806-vote majority BN got in the last state elections, and appeared to quash opposition Anwar Ibrahim’s claims that the opposition had made inroads into the BN-dominated regions of East Malaysia.

Dr P. Sivamurugan, senior lecturer of the Social Science Studies Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia, said the results suggest a long hard road ahead for Najib to win back voters.

“It is a clear signal that BN has to overhaul itself. They are saying they will change and help the people. But it has not been translated into action,” he said.