/ 9 March 2008

Malaysia wakes to new political landscape

Malaysians awoke on Sunday to the biggest sea-change in politics in almost 40 years, with opposition Islamists and reformists winning control of five states and giving the government a humiliating wake-up call.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s multiracial National Front coalition won just a simple majority in Parliament, and his future as leader is in doubt after he watched a record majority collapse to the weakest level ever.

The streets were unusually quiet on Sunday, with many older Malaysians fearful of trouble. The last time the coalition suffered a heavy setback, in 1969, race riots erupted.

”I am shocked. It feels Malaysia is a whole new country. It feels like it has been reborn,” Daniel Sia, a 27-year-old civil engineer, said as he did some Sunday shopping in the capital.

Lai Yee Fei (28), who works at a coffee bar beneath Kuala Lumpur’s soaring twin towers, said she was glad that Malaysia now had a strong opposition to press the government.

”It’s good to give some pressure for Barisan Nasional,” she said. ”If the opposition parties can stand up for us, on behalf of us, I think it’s good.”

Abdullah, who only four years ago led the coalition to a record election victory on a wave of hope for change, faced a bleak political future on Sunday, his aides stunned but not willing to concede that he must step down.

Abdullah’s humbling performance nationally — the coalition ended up with 62% of federal seats, down from 90% — was compounded by the fact that his own home state, the industrial heartland of Penang, fell to the opposition. — Reuters