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NEWS UPDATES 27 April 2010

Malaysia: Ruling party wins by-election, boosting reform agenda

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Malaysia's ruling coalition has won a special legislative election, giving a boost to Prime Minister Najib Razak's reform agenda that aims to win back flagging public support a year after he took office, the Associated Press reported.

The National Front wrested the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat Sunday from the opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, whose political and personal misfortunes have escalated since last year when he was charged with sodomy.

Anwar is currently on trial, which he says is a political conspiracy by the National Front to destroy his career. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in prison. His opposition coalition is also beset by infighting and defections.

The National Front candidate, P. Kamalanathan, secured 1,725 more votes than his opponent, Zaid Ibrahim, a well-known lawyer who has been touted as a possible successor to Anwar. The seat fell vacant when the incumbent, a member of Anwar's People's Alliance coalition, died last month.

"It was a hard-fought win for us," Najib told reporters after the results were announced late Sunday. "I believe that we are on the right track. ... But now we must make sure we produce the results."

Najib has been struggling to revive the popularity of his National Front coalition, which has ruled the country for more than five decades but suffered an unprecedented setback in the last general election two years ago at the hands of Anwar's alliance.

The National Front lost a string of parliamentary by-elections since last year, and the Hulu Selangor victory indicates that it is clawing back. Still, Najib is walking a political tightrope.

He has introduced politically unpopular economic reforms, and is trying to dismantle a decades old affirmative action program for the majority Muslim Malays, who form the core of his party's supporters.

Najib's reforms may please the country's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who have complained of discrimination stemming from the affirmative action program that gives Malays preference in education, jobs and business opportunities. But its unraveling may not please the Malays, who form 60 percent of the country's 28 million people.

Kamalanathan, the National Front candidate who is an ethnic Indian, apparently benefited from the racial mix of the constituency _ about 54 percent are Malays, 27 percent are Chinese, and 19 percent are Indians. Kamalanathan appears to have won the Indian and Malay votes _ because of his party affiliation and ethnicity.

More than 75 percent of 64,500 eligible voters turned up to cast their ballots. Zaid, the opposition candidate, alleged the government's powerful election machinery prevented him from winning.

Najib said the victory was a "good beginning" for his reform agenda.

The election is also being watched as an indicator for the next general polls, which aren't due until 2013 but could be called as early as next year if Najib feels he has a solid platform.

In 2008 general elections, the National Front lost more than a third of parliamentary seats and five of 13 states to the opposition amid economic worries and complaints of discrimination. It was the ruling coalition's worst performance ever since the country's independence in 1957.


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