Najib Faces Fishermen’s Test in Vote Before Malaysia Party Polls

Residents of a small coastal Malaysian fishing town are voting today to help determine whether a fourth state assembly in the Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy falls into opposition hands.

A by-election is being held in Kuala Besut, on the country’s northern coast, following the death of a Terengganu state assemblyman. The vote is the first test of public sentiment after Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition was returned to power in May’s general election by its narrowest margin since independence in 1957.

The governing Barisan Nasional coalition is going into the vote with a one-seat majority in the regional government. A loss would be a setback for Najib as he waits to see whether he’ll be challenged for leadership of his own party, the United Malays Nasional Organisation, later this year.

“Should the opposition gain the seat, it will create a minor crisis,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, said in an e-mail interview. “It will divert attention away from the upcoming UMNO party polls.”

Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition alliance currently controls three of Malaysia’s 13 state assemblies, down from four before the May general election. Najib’s coalition is fielding Tengku Zaihan Che Ku Abd Rahman, a 37-year-old engineer, against Endot Azlan Yusof, a 48-year-old businessman from an Islamic party, according to Bernama, the state news service.

“The special thing about this one is that if the opposition wins it will be a hung state assembly,” James Chin, professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, said by e-mail.

In such a scenario both coalitions would need to make their cases to Terengganu’s king to decide which should lead the state’s government. Both Chin and Ibrahim predicted Barisan Nasional would retain the seat.

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