Malaysia’s Crucial By-Election Test

An obscure by-election could put UMNO's future on the line

The 14,000-voter district is more than 20 percent ethnic Indian. It will be a test for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to see if he has had any success in wooing Malaysia's Indians, who make up about 8 percent of the total population, back to the fold.

Asia Sentinel

Malaysia's fundamentalist opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia appears increasingly likely to win the country's next by-election in the first poll that might actually start to realign power, despairing United Malays National Organisation insiders say.

"UMNO may lose the seat and start the demise of the party," said a disillusioned party stalwart, although other observers point out that the ruling national coalition has a built-in edge from military and police voters.

The seat came open in the state of Negeri Sembilan with the sudden death of UMNO state lawmaker Azman Mohd Noor from blood poisoning in early September. Although it is a seat in a relatively obscure state legislature, if PAS takes it in the Oct. 11 by-election in what had been an UMNO stronghold, observers in Kuala Lumpur say, it will be a convincing demonstration that the fundamentalist Islamic party is breaking out of its rural stronghold on the eastern side of the country and that its power is growing.

UMNO is banking on the hope that of the 14,000 voters in the constituency, 5,700 are absentee postal voters, most of them soldiers and policemen, whose vote usually goes to the Barisan Nasional. The district is about 60 mi. south of the Kuala Lumpur conurbation.

The election comes at a time when Malaysia is suffering from a variety of economic, ethnic, religious and cultural strains that are being exacerbated by political maneuvering between the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition and the ruling Barisan Nasional. Annual gross domestic product fell a stunning 6.2 percent in the first quarter of 2009 as the world financial crisis disrupted Malaysia's export-oriented economy. GDP continued to fall by 3.9 percent in the second quarter, killing job growth despite a massive fiscal stimulus package and accommodative fiscal policy from Bank Negara, the country's central bank.

"They say it's turning around, but a lot of people are losing their jobs, this (Eid Ul Fitri, the end of the fasting month) people are not spending, many companies are opting for early retirement for their workers," said a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer. "Hopefully (the fiscal package) does kick in soon, but I doubt it on the ground. It is going to hurt."

As part of that fiscal stimulus, development spending is expected to hit RM55 billion (US$15.8 billion) for all of 2009 and rise to RM58 billion for 2010. However, construction spending is a double-edged sword. Malaysia's construction companies are closely aligned to UMNO and increasingly jaded voters are concerned that the spoils will go to fat-cat cronies of the politicians.

Given these problems, PAS has emerged as a political powerhouse in urban areas as ethnic Malays have turned away from the scandal-ridden UMNO, attracted by PAS's stated clean-government aims despite its strict fundamentalist policies. The party has been feeling its oats around Kuala Lumpur, seeking to ban beer sales in Malay areas and, most recently, pushing authorities to seeking to force the sexy rock superstar Beyonce Knowles into modifying her often provocative dress in advance of an Oct. 25 concert. Beyonce cancelled a show in Malaysia two years ago because of the country's dress code.