Malaysia opposition wins special polls

(Associated Press) – Malaysia's opposition won two of three by-elections held Tuesday, dealing a blow to Prime Minister Najib Razak who took power last week with pledges to carry out wide-ranging government and social reforms.

The results do not change the balance of power at federal or state level but serve as an unofficial referendum on Najib's popularity. The ruling National Front coalition downplayed the loss, saying Najib was yet to make his mark.

"The feel-good factor from the power transition is still too new and has not sunk in," Najib's right-hand man, Muhyiddin Yasin, told reporters while conceding defeat.

"I am confident that when the new leadership begin their duties, and when reforms are implemented, it will convince the people," said Muhyiddin, who is expected to be appointed deputy prime minister in the new Cabinet.

Najib is likely to announce his Cabinet either on Wednesday or Thursday.

Tuesday's elections were held to fill a seat in Parliament from the Bukit Gantang constituency in the northern Perak state, and a seat each in the state parliaments of the northern Kedah state and Sarawak on Borneo island. The by-elections were to fill vacancies caused by two deaths and one resignation.

The National Front won the Sarawak race, but lost the other two. Bukit Gantang was won by Mohammad Jamaluddin Nizar of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, while Bukit Selambau was won by S. Manikumar of the People's Justice Party.

The two parties are partners in the People's Alliance coalition led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

"Irrespective of the new PM, Malaysians still want change," Anwar told reporters. "They (voters) are even stronger in their support" for the opposition than in the last elections, he said, referring to the increased margin of victories this time.

The People's Alliance had shocked the National Front in the March 8, 2008, general elections, depriving it of a two-thirds majority for the first time in 40 years. With Tuesday's result, the National Front will remain with 138 seats in the 222-member Parliament, while the People's Alliance will have 81 seats. Three other members are independents.

Najib was chosen to lead the ruling party after it booted out former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, blaming him for the election losses. Najib has promised to restore the party's popularity, fix the recession-hit economy and heal widening racial divisions in this multiethnic country, comprising the Malay Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

The minorities complain of discrimination by the Malay-dominated government in jobs, education and religious rights. Also, most Malaysians, irrespective of race, are also angry at government corruption.

Ramon Navaratnam, chairman of the Center of Public Policy Studies think tank in Kuala Lumpur, said the results showed voters were as dissatisfied with the government as they were last year.

"If March 8 had not given (the National Front) a sufficiently strong wake up call, they better take heed of this shrill alarm call this time," said Navaratnam. "If they don't, they will have to sleep through until the next election shocks them out of complacency," he said.

The National Front's defeat in Perak state was expected. The coalition earned massive ill-will after it brought down the People's Alliance government in Perak state earlier this year through defections.

Perak was one of the five states the alliance won in the March 2008 elections.