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Malaysia's new leader dealt rebuke in polls

TAIPING, Malaysia (AFP) — Malaysia's premier Najib Razak was dealt a rebuke by voters Tuesday, losing two of three by-elections seen as a referendum on support for his new leadership and promised reforms.

The votes were the first test for Najib, who was sworn in last Friday, and provided a snapshot of the public mood one year after the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition was humbled in disastrous general elections.

The coalition won one of Tuesday's ballots, for a seat in the state parliament in Sarawak on Borneo island, with a convincing majority that showed it remains the dominant political force in the underdeveloped region.

But the opposition scored a landslide victory in the most prominent of the three polls, in Bukit Gantang in northern Perak state, claiming another seat in the national parliament and a major boost to its credibility.

It also won the hotly contested third election, for a seat in the state parliament of northern Kedah.

Anwar Ibrahim, who leads the three-member opposition alliance and made a failed bid to unseat the government last year with the help of defectors, was elated by the performance.

"Malaysians want change, irrespective of the new prime minister," he told AFP.

He said the winds of change were "still blowing" after the landmark general elections a year ago in which the opposition seized control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and a third of seats in parliament.

Najib has announced an ambitious agenda to reform the ruling party UMNO, which represents majority Muslim Malays, and repair ties with the nation's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

But after his predecessor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi failed to implement his own promised reforms during his six years in power, there is scepticism over whether Najib can deliver.

"It is definitely a bruising for Najib," said political analyst Shaharuddin Badaruddin.

"He will now have to look again at how he is going to win back the support of Malaysians and come up with a plan quickly to ensure the Barisan Nasional is not routed in the next general elections."

The three constituencies, embracing more than 98,700 voters, were seen as an indicator of the next elections due by 2013 because they represent a wide spectrum of Malaysians.

The electorates included rural Malays who have been UMNO's bedrock, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, who flocked to the opposition in the March 2008 elections.

The coalition's win in Sarawak was widely anticipated, after it flooded the impoverished electorate with development funds, but political analysts said the loss in Bukit Gantang heaped pressure on Najib.

Ibrahim Suffian from the Merdeka Centre polling firm said the new leader must now deliver on his promises, in order to win back voters before the next general elections.

"He has to be able to tangibly make a difference before Malaysians will swing back support to the coalition," he said.

"What it means is that there is no honeymoon, Malaysians want their changes to happen now, and he cannot expect that rhetoric alone will carry the day."

Azmin Ali, vice-president of Anwar's Keadilan party, which leads the Pakatan Rakyat alliance, said the results showed a "rejection of the prime minister and bad government policies that have done much damage to the country".

"What these results show is that Pakatan Rakyat is still very popular with the people and that they want an honest, credible government which Barisan Nasional is unable to deliver," he said.

New Malaysia PM fails to staunch opposition rise

By Razak Ahmad and David Chance

TAIPING, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's new prime minister suffered an early blow after just four days in power when the opposition scored a big win in a tense by-election that was billed as a referendum on his premiership.

Facing the worst recession since the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago, voters turned out in large numbers in the poor northwestern state of Perak in a parliamentary election triggered by the death of the MP.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamist Party (PAS) said the result in which their majority for that seat rose to 2,789 votes from 1,566 votes was a judgement by the people of a putsch staged by Prime Minister Najib Razak this year to seize power in the state.

"People are just sick with the political turmoil in Perak and this is an indictment on them (the government)," PAS Deputy President Nasharudin Mat Isa said after the results.

The National Front coalition that Najib heads has ruled Malaysia for 51 years and managed one win on Tuesday in a state assembly seat in Sarawak on the island of Borneo but lost another state seat in Kedah, which neighbours Perak.

The results were in line with expectations and showed that Najib and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that is the lead party in the ruling coalition have failed to reconnect with voters after a poor showing in elections a year ago.

"The results show that UMNO can no longer hope to be successful campaigning mainly on ethnic nationalist issues on the back of an economic crisis and governance issues," said Ibrahim Suffian, of the Merdeka Center, an independent pollster.

Overall, nearly 100,000 voters were eligible to cast ballots on Tuesday in the three polls in this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people, where the majority are ethnic Malays but where ethnic Chinese and Indians account for about 35 percent.

Turnout in Perak was 75 percent, more than that in the 2008 general election when the government stumbled to its biggest ever election losses, ceding control of five states and losing its once iron-clad two-thirds parliamentary majority.


Voting in Perak, where the state chief minister ousted by Najib was the opposition candidate, took place amid a heavy police presence as hundreds of chanting rival supporters faced off outside polling stations.

As evening fell and the votes were counted, riot police formed up behind barbed wire on a rugby field overlooked by a colonial mansion outside the election centre to face thousands of flag-waving PAS supporters.

There were no reports of violence, as backers of PAS, which is a member of the opposition three-party People's Alliance bloc, greeted their victory with shouts of "God is Great".

The loss in Perak marks the third parliamentary by-election vote that has gone against the National Front since elections in 2008 when it recorded its worst-ever result in state and national elections, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Najib, who took over from lacklustre premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has promised economic reforms as export-dependent Malaysia faces up to the impact of the global financial crisis that has slashed demand for its products.

Expectations of reform from Najib are high and he looks set to name a cabinet later this week that could include news faces to push through much needed economic change.

Tuesday's poll losses could, however, hit markets, financial analysts said, due to concerns over whether Najib would be in full control of his government as he undertakes planned changes to Malaysia's huge state-controlled companies.

"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.

by Liau Y-Sing and Soo Ai Peng

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