08 April, 2009

PR has two 'Bukits", BN has one 'Batang

Pakatan has thumped BN 2-1. It took both Bukit Gantang and Bukit Selambau while BN hit one back through Batang Ai.

Premier Najib Razak was dealt a rebuke by voters yesterday, losing two of three by-elections seen as a referendum on support for his new leadership and promised reforms.

It was not a night of celebration for Barisan Nasional (BN). The status quo remained with no seats changing parties in the three by-elections held yesterday.

But the ruling coalition's failure to reclaim the two peninsula seats was a severe blow to its attempt at reinventing its image. The only piece of good news was that it won big in the Batang Ai by-election in Sarawak. Its vote majority more than doubled compared to the 2006 state election.

The bad news: Bukit Gantang, a parliamentary seat in Perak, stayed in opposition hands, as did Bukit Selambau, a state assembly seat in Kedah.

In Bukit Gantang – seen as the most important of the three – the opposition alliance Pakatan Rakyat (PR) won the seat by 2,789 votes, which was higher than its 1,566 majority last year. It was a convincing win.

The BN failed miserably in trying to woo voters back in the peninsula since its dramatic losses in the 2008 general election, even as it retained support in East Malaysia.

One irresistible conclusion is that the Umno-led BN is increasingly forced to rely on the Ibans and rest of East Malaysia to bolster its grip on power. If true, this geographical polarisation does not bode well for Malaysia.

DESPITE the Barisan Nasional's earlier denial that the Bukit Gantang by-election was not a referendum on the country's new leadership, the ruling coalition turned it into just that within the last few days before polling.

Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was brought in for the campaign and publicly endorsed Datuk Seri Najib Razak as the new prime minister, showering praises on his capabilities.

Mahathir plugged the new Umno leadership elected at its recent general assembly. "I am confident that Najib's leadership reflects the original Umno," the octogenarian ex-premier said.

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.

Tuesday's results don't change the balance of power at the federal or state levels but serve as an unofficial referendum on Najib's popularity. The ruling National Front coalition downplayed the loss, saying the new premier was yet to make his mark.

"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.

All 13 independent candidates in the Bukit Selambau state by-election lost their deposits after failing to secure at least one-eighth of the total number of votes cast.

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