Winning the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat is crucial for the federal opposition, which needs to show it remains a serious contender to wrest power in the next elections. — Picture by Choo Choy May
HULU SELANGOR, Malaysia, April 25 — Voters turned up in large numbers in a tense by-election in Selangor today that is seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s economic reforms.
Vehicles crawled along roads to the rural enclave of Hulu Selangor in opposition-controlled Selangor state as the government bussed in flag-waving supporters.
Watched by about 1,000 police, a pro-governemnt crowd faced off against supporters of Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition alliance at many polling stations in this marginal parliamentary constituency that fell vacant after an opposition lawmaker died.
Analysts said the contest was too close to call, although anything less than a substantial majority may raise questions about Najib’s leadership.
For Anwar, who is on trial for sodomy, a defeat would add to a string of setbacks that have seen a series of party defections.
“My family is divided over the elections,” said Yusoff Hashim, a 33-year-old graphic designer, after he voted. “My father says we have to be loyal to the government because they helped us. I don’t think it’s true.”
By 1050 Malaysian time, turnout was 26.3 per cent, according to the Election Commission. About 64,500 people are eligible to vote at this rural seat at the outskirts of the Malaysian capital.
Some voters also said they were unhappy with politicians’ failure to address their biggest worries — taxes and incomes — in a campaign that mostly focused on opposition candidate and former law minister Zaid Ibrahim’s alcohol drinking.
Alcohol is forbidden for Malays, who are Muslims and make up half of the 28 million people in this Southeast Asian country.
Although the election will not affect that balance of power, the government is keen to retake the seat in Selangor state that abuts the capital Kuala Lumpur and is Malaysia’s richest.
Najib has hit the campaign trail and handed out cash to Malay estate settlers, with promises of more to come, in an election that he dubbed a referendum on his first year in office as well as his New Economic Model that involves rolling back race-based affirmative action policies favouring Malays.
“Najib needs to win very big so that he builds up the momentum to take back the Selangor state from the opposition, if and when there is a general election,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia expert with Singapore Management University.
The premier’s first year in office has been marked by strained public finances and delays in fuel subsidy reforms and a goods and services tax due to fears of a voter backlash.
The Barisan Nasional has lost seven out of nine by-elections after its worst performance in 2008 polls. Mounting political tensions have dented investment. Outflows hit US$61 billion (RM194 billion) in 2008 and 2009, official data showed.
Winning the Hulu Selangor parliamentary seat is crucial for the opposition, which needs to show it remains a serious contender to wrest power in the next elections. Anwar needs to boost his standing after the recent defections of four MPs. — Reuters
Najib, Anwar fight out key by-election