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August 27, 2008

Malaysia by-election:
Anwar’s victory adds pressure on PM facing calls to quit

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi faced calls to quit from within his ruling party Wednesday after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim scored a landslide by-election victory, Indonesian news agency Antara reported.

Final results announced by the Election Commission show Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has won a landslide victory in a special election for Parliament, the Associated Press reported.

The Election Commission announced that Anwar had won 31,195 of the estimated 47,000 votes cast in the election Tuesday in this semi-rural district in the northern state of Penang.

By comparison, his rival, Arif Shah Omar Shah of the governing National Front coalition, got 15,524 votes. A third candidate got 92 votes.

Anwar’s victory strengthens his campaign to topple the government and become the next prime minister even though he is facing charges of sodomizing a male aide.

Anwar won the vote to return to parliament despite an intense campaign mounted by the Barisan Nasional coalition, which he has promised to unseat within a month with the help of defecting lawmakers.

The failure to check Anwar has heaped more pressure on Abdullah, who has fought to hold on to his job since March general elections in which the opposition gained unprecedented ground.

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a senior member of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which leads the ruling coalition, called for a new leadership "to unite our people... and forge a clear national direction."

"(Abdullah) does not have the minimal credibility needed to run the country day by day, let alone to take it in the new directions we need to go in a complex world," he said. "This dangerous situation cannot continue."

Razaleigh said the coalition's by-election campaign, which was criticised for its racial overtones and focus on sodomy allegations against Anwar, has "embarrassed and divided the nation with its ugliness."

"It is time to face the music: it is we who have been buried," he said.

Razaleigh plans to challenge Abdullah for the party leadership in December polls, but is likely to fail after the premier silenced calls for his immediate ouster by agreeing to hand over power to his deputy Najib Razak in 2010.

Abdullah's main critic, former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, has also called for the resignation of his successor after relations between the two soured in 2006.

Mahathir's son Mukhriz, another senior UMNO figure who is vying for the top spot in the party's influential youth wing, also called for Abdullah's immediate resignation.

"I think Abdullah should strongly consider for all our sakes, to step down now," he told AFP.

"This is a second time that the Malaysian people have given a clear message, with the first at the general elections. It is a rejection of the present leader and he must leave now."

In a related report, Reuters said while Anwar’s strong showing has helped ease his path to the premiership, tensions in his three-party coalition raise big questions as to whether he can deliver.

Anwar, once a star of the government that has ruled Malaysia for five decades and who fell from grace after being convicted for corruption and sodomy in 1999 and 2000, won despite facing new sex charges.

"I am not sure that PAS (an Islamist party) is convinced that he can get 30 (government) MPs to cross over," said Terence Gomez, professor at the University of Malaya's Faculty of Economics and Administration.

Anwar is part of a coalition that includes an ethnic Chinese party and the Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS). The coalition controls 82 seats in the 222-member parliament.

He has promised he can lure 30 legislators from the ruling the Barisan Nasional government to push through a parliamentary confidence vote on Sept. 16 to take power.

PAS, which wants an Islamic state in the Southeast Asian country of 27 million people, has not formally endorsed him as the leader of the opposition coalition, whose surprisingly strong showing in elections in March deprived the government of its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

"...He (Anwar) will probably find that winning Permatang Pauh is the easy part. Becoming prime minister may be as elusive for him as it was before," commentator Jocelin Tan wrote in the Star newspaper, referring to the ambitious former deputy premier.

Political uncertainty in Malaysia has scared off investors and pushed the local stock market and the ringgit currency to 2008 lows.

A prolonged trial in the new sodomy case that starts on September 10 means it is unclear that Anwar will actually be free to lead the coalition.

In addition, the prospect that a rudderless and desperate Barisan Nasional government could try to spend its way to popularity is another reason to avoid Malaysian assets, analysts said.

Anwar has pledged he will restore Malaysia's competitiveness in part by ending a system of affirmative action for ethnic Malays, which critics say has damaged the country's economic prospects.

"I think the main contents of his (Anwar's) policies are sound, and they do make sense economically over the long run because it should have a positive impact on Malaysia's competitiveness," said Alvin Pontoh, an economist at Capital Economics in London.

"But I do question his ability to deliver them when and if he does become prime minister, given that the opposition coalition that he leads is comprised of three parties with widely differing agendas and ideologies," Pontoh said.

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