/ 7 April 2009

Malaysians vote in tense polls on new PM

Voters turned out in large numbers on Tuesday in a tense by-election in the northern Malaysian state of Perak that is seen as a key test for the country’s new prime minister.

Amid a heavy police presence, hundreds of chanting government and opposition supporters faced off outside polling stations in this poor rural Malaysian constituency where a parliamentary seat is being fought.

The Perak seat is being contested along with two local posts in other states in this Asian country of 27-million people and it is especially tense as new Prime Minister Najib Razak led a putsch to oust the opposition People’s Alliance state government.

The former state leader is the opposition parliamentary candidate. He is standing against the National Front coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for 51 years, and heavy losses for the government could hit markets, economic analysts said.

”What we already have in the state with the People’s Alliance is good enough for us, and there is no need for further change,” said an ethnic Chinese voter, Lim Swee Aun, after casting her vote. Tensions were high throughout the day and as evening fell and the votes were counted, riot police with shields formed up on a rugby field overlooked by a colonial mansion outside the election centre where votes were being counted.

”There are a lot of outsiders here and emotions are running very high,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert at Johns Hopkins University who was observing the vote.

The opposition won the seat for the first time in 2008 with a majority of 1 566 votes as the National Front stumbled to its worst-ever result in national and state elections.

Turnout in the Perak constituency was 75% while in the state assembly seat in neighbouring Kedah it was 70% and in a state seat in Sarawak on the island of Borneo it was 71%, according to the Election Commission.

About 100 000 voters are eligible to vote in the three state seats, two of which has a voter demography that matches the country’s ethnic composition, representing a major test for Najib just four days after he became prime minister.

The election results will not alter the national balance of power but analysts say Najib needs to win to put his stamp on the government and reverse a growing tide of public disappointment in the ruling coalition. The ruling National Front coalition has lost two crucial by-elections since last August and in one of them, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was returned to parliament for the first time in 10 years after imprisonment and a bar on holding office.

Analysts say the ruling coalition stands a good chance of winning the Batang Ai state seat in Sarawak but faces a tough fight for the other two seats.

Najib who took over from lacklustre Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has promised economic reforms as Malaysia faces its worst recession since the Asian financial crisis a decade ago and is set to name a reformist cabinet later this week.

Expectations of Najib among investors are high and there are concerns of a selloff if the government does poorly in the votes.

”The concerns about the longevity of the current government and the possibility of a significant change in corporate dynamics longer term might spook the market near term,” Deutsche Bank said in a report published on Tuesday. — Reuters