Barisan Wins Malaysia's By-Election

As expected, Malaysia's Barisan Nasional Wednesday won a hotly contested by-election in the Kuala Besut Assembly district in Terengganu in eastern Malaysia, preserving the Barisan's 17-15 majority in the Terengganu statehouse by a strong margin of more than 2,500 votes.

The win allows Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, under fire for the national coalition's poor showing in the 13th general election, to breathe a sigh of relief in bolstering his hold on his job.

Although the race seems an obscure district in an obscure state, the Barisan is said to have poured RM19,000 per voter into the contest to ward off the Pakatan Rakyat coalition's efforts to take the seat. More than 14,000 of the idyllic rural district's 17,679 registered voters were recorded as turning out. More than 30 percent had voted by 10 am.

A win by Pakatan Rakyat was viewed as a long shot at best. The seat was vacated when A. Rahman Mokhtar, who had held it for two terms, died from complications from lung cancer on June 26 after rather handily trouncing Napisah Ismail, a candidate put forth by Parti Islam se-Malaysia, the rural-based Islamist party that was the big loser in national elections that were held on May 5. PAS won only 21 of the 73 parliamentary seats it contested, down from 23 in the 2008 national election.

The race, won by UMNO candidate Tengku Zaihan Che Ku Abdul Rahman, would have created a hung assembly at 16 seats for each of the opposing sides if the PAS candidate had won. Accordingly, the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest ethnic political party, poured in money and some of the party's biggest names including Khairy Jamaluddin, the Youth and Sports Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, now the chief minister of the northern state of Kedah, who has assumed a major role in the by-election in an effort to demonstrate that he has more clout than just his father's name implies.

Local media have reported that financial promises and allocations by federal and state agencies for the Kuala Besut area have totaled at least RM337.5 million (US$106.3 million) via grants, new programs and other goodies from the Prime Minister's Department, the Education and Agriculture Ministries, the Terengganu State Government, and the Syarikat Perumahan Negara Bhd. the National Housing Company.

Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim brought some of his own heavy guns to the assembly district, asking voters to disregard the vast amounts of money that UMNO is pouring into the district and instead "take the opportunity to change the political landscape in the country by ensuring a PAS victory."

Projects announced by the Barisan since the 10-day campaign began July 12, included a RM250 million project to deepen the Kuala Besut estuary and build a breakwater on the river after approving a RM35 million project to rebuild a dam to solve cultivation woes for about 2,000 rice farmers in the surrounding area. The allocations were announced by Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister and a putative rival for Najibd's job as premier.

Overall the results are positive not just for the Barisan Nasional but for Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, whose hold on his job as premier is shaky following the loss of a numerical majority in the May 5 general election, although the Barisan managed to hold onto a substantial parliamentary majority because of gerrymandering.

The win probably means a positive result for Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir, who crossed into the Terengganu constituency in an effort to push his electability nationally. The former prime minister's son, 50, is expected to be a candidate for deputy prime minister if Najib is ousted in the UMNO annual general meeting to be held later this year, probably in August or September, although it could be later.