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Mar 10, 2008

Malaysian prime minister at risk in vote

By Thomas Fuller

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's ruling coalition, which has governed this multiracial country without any major challenges for the past four decades, suffered a string of defeats in key constituencies Saturday and lost control of the relatively prosperous industrial state of Penang.

Early results showed that the coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi retained a majority and will be able to form the next government. But the unexpected significant gains by opposition parties are a challenge to the long-standing paternalistic practices of a government that controls the mainstream media, bans most streets protests, bars students from taking part in politics and jails political opponents without trial.

"I don't think Malaysian politics will ever be the same again," said Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who was expelled from the ruling party a decade ago and is now one of the leaders of the opposition. "There is a wave, an outcry for democratic reform."

The opposition parties unseated several long-time political veterans by fielding fresh but inexperienced candidates, including a political science professor, popular blogger and a human rights activist.

Voters showed their anger at a recent government crackdown against ethnic Indians by electing M. Manoharan, one of five activists jailed after a street protest by Indians, to a local state legislature. It is unclear how Mr. Manoharan, who is being detained without trial, will carry out his duties.

Anger by ethnic Indians and Chinese over religious disputes and a system of economic preferences given to the Malays, the majority ethnic group, appeared to play a major role in the opposition's gains.

The loss of Penang, which is alone among Malaysia's 13 states to have a majority of Chinese voters, is a major blow to Mr. Abdullah whose constituency is based there.

The state is a major industrial center, producing microchips, mobile phones and computer parts in factories owned by Intel, Dell and Motorola, among many others.

The outgoing chief minister, or governor, of Penang, Koh Tsu Koon, lost his seat Saturday to a dissident university professor, P. Ramasamy.

The heads of the two ethnic Indians parties represented in the ruling coalition also lost their seats. These losses call into question the future of the country's race-based coalition, a system in place since independence from Britain in 1957, where each major ethnic group – Malays, Chinese and Indians, is represented by its own political party.

Opposition leaders have vowed to move Malaysia away from this system, with Mr. Anwar's National Justice Party the loudest proponent of the change. Mr. Anwar was barred from running in this election because of a conviction for abuse of power in a politically charged trial. But both his wife and daughter won seats in the national parliament Saturday. Mr. Anwar, who many see as a possible future prime minister, is banned from politics until April. He said in an interview Saturday that he does not rule out requesting a member of his party to resign their seat and running in a by-election.

The opposition did especially well in urban areas, winning at least 7 out of the 11 seats in Kuala Lumpur. But it also made inroads into the rural heartland. The Pan-Islamic Party, one of the three main opposition parties, strengthened its control over the northern state of Kelantan and appeared to have won control of neighboring Kedah state.

The last time opposition parties made similar gains in Malaysia was 1969, an election where victory parties degenerated into deadly ethnic riots that scarred the national consciousness.

Fearing a similar outbreak of violence, the Inspector-General of Police in Malaysia, Musa Hassan, barred any public celebrations Saturday.

"There will not be any victory processions," he said.


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