Malaysia’s opposition parties won 2 of 3 by-elections held on Tuesday, dealing a blow to newly-elected Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who took office last week.
The by-elections were held to fill one seat in Parliament from the Perak state, and one seat each in the state parliaments of Kedah and Sarawak. The by-elections were to fill vacancies left by two deaths and one resignation.
The Barisan Nasional coalition, led by Najib, won in Sarawak, while the Perak federal seat was won by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the Kedah state seat was won by the People's Justice Party. The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party and the People’s Justice Party are partners in the opposition coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat, led by Anwar Ibrahim.
"Malaysians want change, irrespective of the new prime minister," said Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the three-member Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance.
The results of the by-elections do not change the composition of leadership in Malaysia; the Barisan Nasional still retains its grip on the parliament with 138 seats compared with the opposition Pakatan Rakyat's 81, with three independents. Nonetheless, the by-elections are seen as an unofficial referendum on the Prime Minister’s popularity.
The Barisan Nasional has been quick to downplay the significance of the by-election results, claiming that the Prime Minister has yet to make a tangible impression on the constituencies.
"The feel-good factor from the power transition is still too new and has not sunk in," said Muhyiddin Yasin, who is expected to be appointed deputy prime minister in the new cabinet to be announced this week.
"I am confident that when the new leadership begin their duties, and when reforms are implemented, it will convince the people," he said.
The Perak win was a resounding affirmation for the opposition, where political turmoil has been brewing ever since the Sultan of Perak appointed the Barisan Nasional Zambry politician Abd Kadir in the place of opposition leader, Nizar Jamaluddi, as chief minister of the state assembly.
Voters in Perak not only defeated the ruling party again, but increased the opposition's share of the vote, with Nizar 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.
However, the by-elections were not politically damaging for the ruling coalition alone. The opposition loss in Sarawak has particular implications for opposition leader Anwar, as the state must hold elections before 2011 and opposition leader Anwar considers it key to his ambitions to take over the national parliament.
BBC, By-election loss for Malaysian PM , 8 April 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7989035.stm
The Wall Street Journal, Malaysia Election Is Blow to Najib, 7 April 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123912513712097531.html
Asia Sentinel, Malaysia's By-Election Muddle , 8 April 2009, http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1812&I...