Malaysian PM suffers election shock

8 March 2008
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s ruling coalition suffered a shock defeat in Penang state in Saturday’s general elections, reflecting widespread anger among Malaysia’s minorities against Malay dominance.
Still, the National Front was expected to easily win control of the 222-seat Parliament. According to partial results declared by the Election Commission, the National Front won 45 parliamentary seats in addition to the eight it had won earlier unopposed.
For the opposition, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) won five seats, the Islamic Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, got two, and the People’s Justice Party won two.
Analysts have predicted the opposition would win 35 to 38 seats, nearly doubling its 19 seats in the outgoing Parliament.
The Front’s parliamentary victory, however, will be tempered by the unexpected loss of the state assembly in Penang, Malaysia’s only Chinese-majority state and its industrial heartland.
The Chinese-based Democratic Action Party and its ally, the People’s Justice Party, won a simple majority in the 40-member Penang assembly, said Chow Kon Yeow, the DAP’s top official in Penang.
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Official results of the parliamentary and state elections — which were held simultaneously — will be known early Sunday. But representatives of political parties monitoring the counting of votes release results unofficially before the Election Commission announces them.
Chow said Penang Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon spoke to him on the phone and conceded defeat. Koh is a leader of Gerakan party, a component of the National Front coalition that has been in control of Malaysia’s federal government since 1957 and of Penang since 1969.
Chang Ko Youn, the vice president of Gerakan party, said the Peang defeat was like “a tsunami coming in.”
“Nobody expected it to be so bad. I am a bit worried for the future of our party and our country,” Chang told The Associated Press.
The National Front was also likely to lose in Kelantan state, where PAS was expected to return to power with a greater majority. PAS has been in power in Kelantan for the last 18 years, and it is the only state not under the National Front’s control.
“It’s a people’s revolution. People are waking up and sending a clear message to the government that enough is enough,” PAS vice president Husam Musa told reporters as party workers held boisterous celebrations into the night.
The opposition gains are due to the unprecedented electoral alliance forged by the DAP, PAS and the People’s Justice Party of former Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. The alliance agreed to field only one candidate against the National Front to prevent multi-cornered contests, which in the past had divided opposition votes.
A reduced majority for the National Front would be seen as a personal rebuke for Abdullah, who has lost much of the goodwill he enjoyed when he replaced longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad in 2003. Abdullah led the Front to a landslide victory in 2004, taking 91 percent of the seats in Parliament.
A key issue in the elections was the disillusionment among ethnic Chinese and Indians, who have complained about religious discrimination as well as about a 37-year-old affirmative action program that gives the majority Muslim Malays preference in government jobs, business and education.
In addition, most Malaysians, regardless of race, are angry with Abdullah over rising prices, corruption and crime.
Malays make up 60 percent of Malaysia’s 27 million people, Chinese account for 25 percent and Indians 8 percent. Each community is represented by its party in the National Front in a unique power-sharing arrangement.
But the minorities say their parties have become subservient to Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization, which dominates the Front. UMNO also appears to have lost the support of some Malays, which was evident in Kelantan, a predominantly Malay state in the northeast.
First-time voter Michael Lim said he voted for an opposition party.
“They have not taken care of the people,” he said in Kuala Lumpur. “A lot of promises were made, but nothing (was) fulfilled.”