By-election signals

(Economist Intelligence Unit) KUALA LUMPUR, April 20 – Najib Razak, Malaysia’s new prime minister, has suffered an early setback with losses in two out of three by-elections on April 7.

The result is hardly a disaster for Najib’s Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, as the BN had not been expected to win all three by-elections. But it does show that Najib has some work to do to cement his position.

At the same time, the mixed outcome of the by-elections shows that the opposition alliance, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), also needs to make bigger inroads into the BN’s support base to have a realistic chance of challenging for power at a national level.

The by-elections were for one seat in the national parliament and two state assembly seats. The BN won the state seat of Batang Ai in Sarawak. But it lost the other two by-elections.

As expected, the PR won the state seat in Bukit Selambau in Kedah and also retained its national-level parliamentary seat in the Bukit Gantang constituency in the state of Perak. Neither the BN nor the PR succeeded in taking control of a seat away from the other, and there was no change of power in any of the three seats contested.

The BN’s failure to recapture the parliamentary seat of Bukit Gantang is a blow for Najib, as each of the three by-elections had been billed as a referendum on his leadership prospects.

Having taken control of the state executive council in Perak in February, the BN had hoped to cement that success by winning back the parliamentary seat it had lost at the March 2008 general election.

But it seems the BN has paid a price for its recent tactics in Perak. There have been suggestions that voters in Bukit Gantang used the by-election as an opportunity to register their dissatisfaction with the BN’s methods.

In particular, some voters may feel that the defection of PR state legislators, which triggered the BN’s move to take control of the executive council in the state, should have been followed by a state election.

The PR’s retention of the Bukit Gantang seat will not alter the balance of power at the national level. The PR holds the same number of seats now, 83 out of a total of 222, as it did at the start of the year. (The parliamentary by-election had been necessitated by the death of Roslan Shaharum of Parti Islam se-Malaysia, one of the three parties that make up the PR alliance.)

Nevertheless, the result is a symbolic victory for Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the PR, and for Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the former chief minister of Perak, who has challenged the validity of the new BN-led executive council in the state.

The PR has done well at each of the three national-level parliamentary by-elections held since the last general election.

The PR tends to perform well in constituencies with a greater concentration of ethnic minorities, and this proved to be the case in the contest for the state-assembly seat of Bukit Selambau.

Again, the PR’s victory does not alter the balance of power in the Kedah state assembly, which remains under the federal opposition alliance’s control. In this sense, the BN has done no worse than expected.

However, the BN’s failure to make inroads in Bukit Selambau will serve as a reminder to Najib that his coalition needs to do much more to regain the confidence of minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, many of whom still feel marginalised by BN policies.

Likewise, the PR’s failure to win the Batang Ai state-assembly seat in Sarawak highlights a different set of challenges for Anwar. He has yet to win tangible support in Sarawak, one of the two states (along with Sabah) deemed to be important to his strategy of wresting power from the BN.

Legislators from these two states occupy a third of all parliamentary seats held by the BN. Anwar hopes to attract many of these politicians to his camp, which would put him in a stronger position to launch a no-confidence motion against the ruling coalition.