Malaysia’s ruling coalition kicked off its by-election campaign for a key parliamentary seat in the country’s Malay heartland yesterday, in a crucial test for Prime Minister-in-waiting Najib Razak – and where the minority Chinese may decide the outcome.
A win will help Datuk Seri Najib put his stamp on the ruling alliance following major reverses in last March’s general election. But a loss would signal a further erosion of support. Three candidates filed papers yesterday to run for the Kuala Terengganu seat on the east coast, with polling on Jan 17.
The race is mainly between Mr Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh, a former deputy home minister from the dominant Umno party, and Mr Mohamad Abdul Wahid Endut, a teacher fielded by the opposition Islamist PAS party. The third contender is an independent no-hoper.
Mr Najib, who assumes the premiership in March, told reporters: “We do not want to be too confident in predicting because we don’t have a crystal ball, but we are reasonably optimistic that we will win and that we will do even better this time.”
The ruling coalition won the seat with a slim majority of 628 votes in last year’s March polls. The seat became vacant following the death of the incumbent.
This time, the Umno candidate, Mr Wan Ahmad Farid, 46, is a controversial choice. He is from a wealthy family in Terengganu and has been criticised as having little grassroots experience. He is also seen as a loyalist of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.
The PAS candidate, 52, is little-known nationally.
More than 10,000 government and opposition supporters, mainly ethnic Malays, turned up for the nomination process at an indoor stadium.
But, with the Malay vote likely split between the opposition and the ruling coalition, the Chinese – who make up only 11.6 per cent of the seat’s 80,229 voters – could decide the issue. PAS, part of an opposition alliance led by former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, is expected to capitalise on his appeal to reach out to non-Muslim voters.
Analysts say Kuala Terengganu may indicate whether the government is set for a comeback after the disaster of March last year.
Political analyst Ong Kian Ming said: “The only way the government can claim this to be a turning-point election is if they win by a large margin, as it would mean that there has been a genuine swing in the Malay electorate back to the ruling coalition.”
Anwar’s once-popular attacks on government leaders and high fuel prices are growing stale, analysts say, especially now that petrol prices have come down.
Najib faces by-election test