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March 30, 2009

Opposition mounts pressure on Malaysia PM as by-election nears
Malaysia's opposition put questions over the alleged involvement of the country's incoming prime minister in the murder of a Mongolian model at the heart of a tense by-election campaign which started on Sunday, reported Reuters.

Nominations for the parliamentary seat in the tin-mining northwestern state of Perak pit the country's Islamic opposition against the National Front coalition and has been cast a referendum on Najib Razak who will become premier next week.

Over ten thousand opposition supporters gathered amid a heavy police presence to support their candidate, singing songs in Malay linking Najib with the murdered model, Altantuya Shaariibuu, to the tune of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Some carried a four foot long model submarine, an allusion to what they say are crooked defense contracts signed by Najib.

Najib on Saturday denounced the allegations for which no direct evidence has been produced as "malicious" lies, but they have dogged his ascent to power as he readies to take the top job next week amid a deepening economic crisis and rising tensions.

Last week, opposition websites were denied accreditation to the annual meeting of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) at which Najib was elected president. An opposition MP has been charged with sedition and opposition newspapers banned.

"What we are worried about is that the transition of the national leadership will see an increase in this undemocratic attitude," said Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).

PAS is part of the three-party opposition People's Alliance bloc led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.

While the April 7 by-election will not change the national balance of power it is significant as the opposition candidate is the former state minister whose administration was ousted by Najib in a putsch last month that has stoked tensions.

The vote in Perak, the state elections in Kedah and in Sarawak on the island of Borneo are seen as a referendum on Najib's leadership the National Front coalition that has ruled this Southeast Asian nation for 51 years.

"A strong win by the People's Alliance in Bukit Gantang will be read as an indictment on Najib's wresting control of Perak," said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.

The National Front is pinning its hopes for victory on a newly found sense of unity under the leadership of Najib, a 55-year old British-educated economist.

Dogged by corruption and simmering ethnic tensions, the Front stumbled to its worst ever result in national and state elections a year ago, losing over a third of parliamentary seats.

That loss hastened the exit of lackluster Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his replacement by Najib who has been in parliament for over 30 years and is the son of Malaysia's second prime minister and the nephew of its third.

"There will be a change of leadership in the party and government and so we want to tell people that this is a team that means business," Muhyiddin Yassin, UMNO's newly minted deputy president said on Sunday.

Traditionally new Malaysian prime ministers enter office with a huge bounce in support, although Najib's approval rating of 51 percent in the most recent poll conducted by independent Merdeka Center is less than that of Abdullah.

Najib has pledged to end corruption in the ruling party, rebuild the shattered 13-party ruling coalition that is split on ethnic lines and looks set to embark on a radical program of economic reforms to try to improve Malaysia's competitiveness during the global economic downturn.

His chances of doing so will depend on whether he can salvage something from the three votes, Ong, the political analyst said.

"Politically, the status quo remains if the National Front retains its seat in Sarawak and loses the other two," he said.


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