Mon, Jan 31, 2011 - Page 4 News List

Key by-election in Malaysia testing mood of the public

AFP, KUALA LUMPUR

Voting began yesterday in a by-election in a bastion of Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, a contest that could help trigger national polls this year.

The vote was called in the semi-rural Tenang constituency in southern Johor State after the death of a state assemblyman from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the coalition.

After nine days of tough campaigning and lively night rallies, voters began trickling in to polling stations to cast their ballots.

The by-election pits the Barisan Nasional’s Mohamad Azahar Ibrahim, 39, against Normala Sudirman, a rising star within the conservative Islamic party (PAS), which belongs to the opposition alliance.

The outcome will not alter power in the state, which is ruled by the coalition, but a convincing victory would indicate that support for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak remains intact there, as speculation about a looming general election grows.

“It is a critical by-election for UMNO and the Barisan Nasional. It will test their strength in their traditional stronghold,” political analyst Khoo Kay Peng said.

“It is a test for UMNO and PAS in the race for Malay leadership,” he added.

Khoo said that a strong win would spur Najib to call for snap polls later this year, as his confidence grows that he has clawed back support after 2008 elections when the opposition won unprecedented gains.

In the run-up to the poll, Normala caused a stir by declining to shake hands with men, triggering debate across Malaysia’s racial and religious divide.

Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who follow Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism among other religions, complain their rights are being trampled by the imposition of Muslim values on their way of life.

Observant Muslims in Malaysia sometimes prefer not to shake hands with an unrelated person of the opposite gender, but working politicians generally take a more relaxed view.

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