Malaysia's By-Election Muddle

Malaysia's opposition coalition won two of three by-elections yesterday – for state legislative seats in the northern province of Kedah and in Sarawak, and for a federal seat in the state of Perak. But the results of the three races probably mean political losses for everybody.

Newly minted Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak may have been the biggest loser, along with a policy of racial détente which he adopted almost immediately after he was named prime minister last week. For the last several months, Najib has been the strongest image of his United Malays National Organisation as the former Prime Minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, faded from the political picture.

Najib became personally involved in both Kedah and Perak, where he was regarded as responsible for precipitating a political crisis by prying state lawmakers away from the opposition. He has been under strong public criticism for months from an array of scandals stemming from defense procurements when he was Defense Minister that cost the national treasury billions of dollars in “commissions” to UMNO stalwarts. The races also take place against the backdrop of a looming verdict in the dubious trial of two of Najib's bodyguards accused of the murder Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator who reportedly was a party to the controversial purchase of French submarines that netted his close friend and her jilted lover, Abdul Razak Baginda, 114 euros in commissions.

The two losses in Peninsular Malaysia thus appear to be a strong indication of concerns about his leadership and the activities of UMNO, the country's biggest ethnic political party and the dominant force in the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition. There are also concerns about the country's flagging, export-driven economy as the world economic downturn continues.

The results of the three races don't change the national equation. Each of the three seats went to the parties that had them before. The Barisan Nasional still retains its grip on the parliament with 138 seats compared with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat's 81, with three independents. The two peninsular losses by UMNO are part of a continuum that began with the March 2008 general election.

Then, last August, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim's win in a Penang by-election meant his triumphal return to electoral politics and the resuscitation of his political career after spending six years in jail on corruption and sexual perversion charges that were widely regarded as trumped up. UMNO lost a second by-election to the opposition in Terengganu last January as well despite its logistical prowess and its control of the media and despite Najib's role as cheerleader and strategist.

Nonetheless, the Barisan had hopes of winning back the Kedah seat through the Malaysian Indian Congress. To appeal to a constituency that has a substantial Indian population, Najib freed 13 detainees including five officers of Hindraf, of a Hindu protest group who were arrested last year under Malaysia's tough Internal Security Act. Kedah was one of five states won last year by the opposition. The seat up for grabs was vacated a year ago by an opposition lawmaker caught up in a sex scandal.

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Anwar's Parti Keadilan Rakyat retained the Kedah seat with a slightly increased majority over the numbers polled in the national election March 8 that cost the Barisan Nasional its two-thirds hold on the national parliament. The win for the opposition could well spell the end for the scandal-tainted party Indian party that was nearly wiped out in last year's elections. After attempts by new party members to bring reform, S. Samy Vellu, the longtime MIC chief, managed to lever himself back into power. The loss calls into question the Barisan's decision to allow MIC to contest the district, which is about 30 percent ethnic Indian with ethnic Malays making up the preponderance.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to UMNO last week to rapturous applause after his noisy departure a year ago in a vitriolic dispute with Badawi, also is off to a rocky start that raises questions about his popularity both inside and outside the party. His son, Mukhriz, lost out for the post of UMNO Youth leader. The 86-year-old Mahathir campaigned in both Kedah and Perak for the Barisan Nasional to enthusiastic crowds. It didn't do any good.

Likewise, in Perak, the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia won back a seat vacated when a former federal lawmaker died. The state, also won by the opposition in March 2008, has been the scene of tumultuous political infighting after Najib managed to woo three state assemblypersons away from the opposition, sparking widespread rumors of political payoffs. Although Sultan Azlan Shah ruled that the state was in the hands of the Barisan and appointed an UMNO chief minister, Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the ousted chief minister, refused to give up his seat.

Political squabbling has paralyzed the state ever since, with the racial situation getting uglier after Karpal Singh, the Indian national chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party offered to sue the sultan for awarding the legislature to the Barisan. UMNO leaders attempted to portray that as an insult to the sultan and therefore to ethnic Malays.

Nizar promptly filed for the empty federal seat. Despite Mahathir's efforts and with UMNO pulling out the election stops, Nizar pulled out an even bigger victory than the opposition won for the seat in 2008, almost doubling the margin of victory obtained by his late predecessor. The victory by Nizar is also expected to raise questions over the sultan's decision to award UMNO the state leadership.

The big concern is that the vote was divided strongly across racial lines, with ethnic Malay voters going solidly for UMNO and Chinese and Indians voting for Nizar even though he is a PAS leader.

The Sarawak loss by the opposition is significant because the state must hold elections before 2011 and opposition leader Anwar considers it key to his ambitions to take over the national parliament. Anwar visited the constituency of Batang Ai in an attempt to move voters. The race was regarded as a referendum on Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, who has ruled the state for decades and is regarded by many as inattentive to the needs of his constituency. The seat's constituency is more than 90 percent ethnic Iban, whose discontent is high over lack of compensation for the loss of lands to the Batang Ai dam and the lack of development. Despite the presence of a hydro-electric dam, parts of the constituency don't even have electricity.

Pakatan Rakyat won nine seats in the last election in the state and thought it was making inroads into Sarawak. It didn't happen, which can be expected to deal a blow to Anwar's chances of wooing state lawmakers to leave the Barisan and join his opposition coalition.

The biggest concern is the country's ethnic situation, which continues to deteriorate. The Perak race in particular was extremely polarized. Ethnic Malays are growing increasingly irritated with what they regard as Chinese usurpation of their long-time rights and privileges. UMNO members at their March convention hammered away repeatedly from the podium, trumpeting Malay rights.