Saturday, March 08, 2008

From Reuters: Malaysia ruling coalition suffers surprise upset

Malaysia ruling coalition suffers surprise upset
Sat Mar 8, 2008 8:12pm IST

By Mark Bendeich

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) - Malaysia's opposition threatened on Saturday to hand the ruling coalition its biggest upset in 40 years by winning the northern industrial state of Penang, putting the prime minister's political future at risk.

The multi-racial National Front coalition is almost certain to get a majority and form the government at the federal level, but it was as yet uncertain of retaining the two-thirds majority it has held for most of its five-decade-long rule.

"It's bad. They have lost Penang," a source close to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told Reuters just two and a half hours after polling booths closed at 0900 GMT. "It's a perfect storm," he added. "Big guns are falling all over the place."

The chief minister of Penang conceded defeat and said he would hand over power to the opposition, one of the state's opposition leaders said.

"He has contacted the governor. He respected the wishes of the people and hoped there are no untoward incidents," said Chow Kon Yeow, head of the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP) in Penang, which was set to lead the new government in the state.

Works Minister Samy Vellu, chief of the Malaysian Indian Congress, one of the parties in the ruling National Front coalition, lost the seat he had held for nearly 30 years, because many Indians thought he was out of touch with their concerns.

Chinese and Indians account for a third of the population of 26 million and many complain the government discriminates in favour of Malays when it comes to education, jobs, financial assistance and religious policy.

"This looks like a revolution," said Husam Musa, vice president of the Islamist opposition party PAS, which looked to be winning in northeastern Kelantan state. "The people have risen and are united. The message to government is, 'Enough is enough'", he told reporters.

The final result is unlikely to be clear until at least 1600 GMT on Saturday. About 70 percent of Malaysia's 10.9 million eligible voters had cast ballots, the country's chief election official said.

"What has happened is there were aspects of unhappiness everywhere -- Indians, Chinese and Malays," the source said, adding that price rises and religious disputes had fed the discontent.

"All these storms came together and there's this massive swing. The only thing you can say now is that there will be a simple majority. It will be the biggest setback since 1969."

Race relations have become a big issue in a country that has long been proud of the racial harmony among its majority Muslim Malays, and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Opposition rallies drew big crowds, especially Chinese and Indian voters unhappy with Abdullah's Malay-dominated coalition.

An early hint of the changing political winds was a police ban on victory processions. Malaysia's worst episode of racial violence in 1969 was sparked by such a parade.

The poll, called before it was due in May 2009, was widely seen as a referendum on Abdullah's rule.

But the electoral system was also on trial as opposition parties accused the multi-racial Barisan Nasional coalition of vote-rigging to continue its five-decade-long grip on power.

A phone survey on election eve showed non-Muslim voters were set to deliver a protest vote against the coalition, said Ibrahim Suffian, of local market-research firm, the Merdeka Center.

It also showed signs of a protest vote among the Muslim majority, which is made up almost entirely of ethnic Malays and generally votes for the main ruling party, UMNO.

Barisan held 90 percent of the seats in the outgoing federal parliament. Political experts had predicted Abdullah's continued leadership could be in jeopardy if his majority fell back below 80 percent, or around 178 seats, in the new 222-seat parliament.

The economy has been growing at a 6 percent annual clip but inflation and a likely U.S. economic slowdown inspire worry.

(Additional reporting by Mark Bendeich, Jalil Hamid and Liau Y-Sing in Kuala Lumpur)

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