Malaysia’s Ruling Coalition Keeps Seat With Reduced Majority

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Malaysia’s ruling coalition won a by-election in a district bordering Prime Minister Najib Razak’s with a smaller majority amid unhappiness over a new consumption tax and rising living costs.

Barisan Nasional candidate Hasan Arifin defeated Parti Islam se-Malaysia’s Nazri Ahmad in Rompin in the state of Pahang by 8,895 votes, the Election Commission of Malaysia said on its website Tuesday. Voter turnout fell to about 74 percent, compared with 85.9 percent in the 2013 general elections, Bernama state news agency reported.

“Some may have simply decided not to turn up to vote because they are protesting against the various different policies introduced by the government,” said Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

The by-election was triggered by the death of parliamentarian Jamaluddin Jarjis in April. Jamaluddin, a former minister and Malaysia’s envoy to the U.S. from 2009 to 2012, was killed along with five others when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in the outskirts of capital Kuala Lumpur.

The helicopter was returning from a wedding reception for Najib’s daughter in Pahang when the accident occurred. The prime minister’s chief of staff also died in the crash.

Approval Ratings

In the 2013 general elections, Jamaluddin won with 30,040 votes and had a majority of 15,114 over his PAS rival. He garnered about 66.8 percent of valid votes. His successor won about 61.5 percent Tuesday.

Najib has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 percent as he undertakes unpopular economic measures to plug a budget gap. A January survey by the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research showed 47 percent of voters in Peninsular Malaysia who were polled said they feel the country is “headed in the wrong direction” compared with 39 percent who said it was on the right track.

Negative sentiments were mainly driven by concerns over the high cost of living, general conditions of the economy, and concerns over a new 6 percent goods and services tax, the Merdeka Center said.

The Rompin by-election is the first of two this week. Former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was forced to vacate his seat in the state of Penang after his imprisonment for sodomy, and the contest to succeed him will be held Thursday, May 7.

Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, is stepping in to retain a seat that’s been in the family for more than three decades. She will face three other candidates including Suhaimi Sabudin of the United Malays National Organisation, the biggest party in the Barisan Nasional coalition that rules nationally.

Disputes within the opposition coalition known as Pakatan Rakyat may keep voters away, Wan Saiful said.

“There are various problems in Pakatan as well and while it is unlikely that Pakatan people will vote for UMNO, they may just not turn up,” he said. The risk is that Pakatan may lose if its backers stay away in large numbers as UMNO supporters would be motivated to go to the polls to grab the seat from the opposition, he said.

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