Opposition wins Malaysian by-election


A Malaysian opposition party led by the wife of jailed ex-deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim on Wednesday won a fiercely contested by-election in a bitter blow to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s ruling coalition.

Saifuddin Nasution Ismail of the National Justice Party (Keadilan) took the Lunas seat in the Kedah state assembly with a majority of 530 over the ruling National Front’s S. Anthonysamy, the official Bernama news agency reported.

The by-election was held a year to the day after the general election and nationwide state polls were held and was seen by both sides as a key popularity test.

In November 1999 the National Front (NF) had a 4,700 majority over the opposition in Lunas. Almost 78 percent of the electorate in the constituency in the northwestern state of Kedah — Mahathir’s home state — cast their ballots on Wednesday.

The result has no practical significance, with the NF retaining a majority in the Kedah state assembly even though it has now lost its symbolically important two-thirds majority.

The next elections for the national parliament need not be held until November 2004.

But Keadilan’s victory was certain to prompt renewed soul-searching in Mahathir’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the leading element in the ruling coalition which also includes the main Chinese and Indian parties.

The by-election is the first to be held under a new electoral roll which will enfranchise around one million first-time voters nationwide — another warning signal for the National Front, which has ruled in one form or another since independence since 1957.

UMNO lost 22 parliamentary seats in the November 1999 election after the sacking and jailing of Mahathir’s popular former deputy Anwar divided ethnic Malays. The party had been eager to prove it had halted that erosion of support among its bedrock constituency.

Keadilan triumphed despite an intensive campaign by the ruling party.