The Malaysian opposition’s ambitions of seizing power have been given a major boost with a by-election win that observers said Sunday seriously undermined the ruling coalition.
The opposition alliance snatched a parliamentary seat from the Barisan Nasional coalition in the northeastern city of Kuala Terengganu on Saturday, in a hard-fought campaign seen as a test of the nation’s political mood.
The result, which does not alter the balance of power but shows the government has failed to claw back support after disastrous March 2008 general elections, triggered calls for sweeping reforms from within the coalition.
“The victory is proof that the people are truly thirsting for change,” said opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who seized five states and a third of parliamentary seats from the government last year.
The decisive win in Kuala Terengganu was due to a swing towards the opposition among Muslim Malays — highly significant for the ruling party UMNO, which for half a century has been kept in power by the majority community.
Calls for reform from within the coalition came swiftly, with former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah saying the coalition had been “humiliated” once again.
He said that despite the general election results, which were the worst in the government’s history, it has “either has not heard the call for fundamental change, or is unable to respond to it.
“We are in uncharted waters with no one at the wheel.”
Siva Murugan Pandian, a political analyst at University of Science Malaysia, said the result gave the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance a tremendous boost as it looks ahead to the next general elections.
“If Anwar is able to ensure there are no cracks in Pakatan Rakyat, the opposition can take over in the next polls. But it can only happen if the sway in Malay votes continues,” he said.
Analysts said the result spelt trouble for deputy premier Najib Razak as he prepares to replace Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was forced to agree to stand down in March over the general election debacle.
“This is going to call into question Najib’s rise to the prime minister’s position,” said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert at Johns Hopkins University who observed the election.
Najib personally headed the government’s campaign in Kuala Terengganu, as well as another failed by-election last year which saw Anwar returned to parliament after a decade-long absence.
“Of course, this is a setback for us… We will not be disheartened by the result,” Najib said late Saturday, rejecting the suggestion that the outcome reflected badly on him. “It’s nothing to do with that,” he said.
Minority ethnic Chinese and Indians deserted the government at last year’s national polls, alienated by rising “Islamisation” of multicultural Malaysia and angry over a decades-old system of preferential treatment for Malays.
Pollster Ibrahim Suffian said the by-election showed the government was now also suffering from a “credibility gap” with Malays that is not being addressed as leaders continue to be distracted by infighting.
Young and urban voters in particular are alienated by widespread corruption and cronyism, and Abdullah’s failure to introduce promised reforms including cleaning up the police and judiciary.
Meanwhile, Ibrahim said the opposition alliance has gained much-needed momentum and proved it is working together effectively despite allegations that the fledgling partnership of three very different parties is cracking up.
For the by-election the opposition fielded a candidate from the conservative Islamic party PAS, while its partners — Anwar’s multiracial Keadilan and the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party — cheerfully campaigned alongside.
Najib says Kuala Terengganu defeat does not reflect on him, will not be dishearted