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RPT-PREVIEW-Race key to Malaysia coalition chances
15-Jan-2009, Reuters, India
By Razak Ahmad

KUALA TERENGGANU, Malaysia, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Malaysia's government, still reeling from a poor showing in the 2008 election, faces a key by-election test on Saturday of whether it can rebuild its multi-ethnic coalition.

While the poor rural seat of Kuala Terengganu in the northeast of this Asian country of 27 million is mostly Malay, the 11.6 percent ethnic Chinese population is seen as the swing vote that will decide the vote, a test for Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak who will take over the premiership in April.

A strong showing for the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant force in the National Front that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years, would boost its chances of remaking its battered coalition and increase Najib's chance to reform the economy.

"Many Kuala Terengganu Chinese voters I've met say the government has not learnt the lessons of the last general election and that they need to send them a stronger message," said political commentator and former opposition MP James Wong.

Nationally, ethnic Chinese and Indians account for 34 percent of the population and they deserted the National Front in droves in 2008, hollowing out the National Front which portrays itself as a multi-ethnic political force.

A recent survey of Kuala Terengganu residents by a respected independent polling organisation, the Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research, found that 75 per cent of the Chinese respondents said voting for the opposition would send a signal to the government to treat non-Malays more fairly.


But the vote on Saturday has been complicated by the fact that the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), part of Anwar Ibrahim's three-party coalition, has pushed for Islamic laws, scaring Chinese who are not Muslims.

The National Front has focused its efforts on playing up Chinese fears over PAS' insistence on establishing an Islamic state.

"The opposition parties are still living in the euphoria of their 2008 general election victories. They are still harping on the same emotive issues," said Ong Tee Keat, the leader of the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the largest Chinese party in the ruling coalition.

"What's important is that we have in fact taken stock of our strengths and weaknesses in the last polls," Ong told Reuters.

The government has 137 seats in parliament, Anwar's coalition has 82 and there are two independents who quit the government. Anwar won the last by-election in September, returning to parliament as the opposition leader after 10 years in the political wilderness, and the National Front is anxious to put an end to the opposition's electoral momentum.

The Kuala Terengganu poll comes just two months ahead of a key UMNO congress at which Najib will be anointed party president, although there is still a fierce battle for other top party posts in which rivals could scupper his chances of governing effectively.

If Najib, who has called Saturday's poll a "must win" to recover from the 2008 election, fails in Kuala Terengganu that could leave him as a lame duck even before he starts to run the country.

"There is therefore a very real danger that Mr. Najib will take the easy way out and duck further reforms in favour of UMNO/BN's (National Front's) tried and tested authoritarian methods of governance," said economic researcher 4Cast in a report published on Thursday.

"And if Mr. Najib does try, he will encounter serious civil society opposition with little room for political manoeuvre given the sharp economic downturn," it said.


UMNO and Najib have frequently warned that a vote for the opposition could usher in another period of racial conflict, which led to bloody riots in 1969.

The National Front suffered an unprecedented electoral debacle in last March's elections, with Chinese and Indian voters complaining of racial discrimination and many Malays disgruntled over inflation, corruption and crime.

Rita Sim, deputy chairman of a think-tank linked to the MCA, said some of the Chinese community's grievances have been blunted due to Anwar's failure to deliver on his promise to wrest power from the government on Sept. 16 last year.

"And while race relations is still a worry, it is in the end a work in progress, so how far the government can address the concerns will depend on the topics that can only come up for discussions after the polls," she said. (Reporting by Razak Ahmad; Editing by David Chance and Bill Tarrant)



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