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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Key issues in Kuala Terengganu by-election

Voters in this northeastern city, the capital of Terengganu state, are voting today in a by-election with national implications. Here are some of the main issues:


The by-election is widely viewed as a referendum on the coalition government's performance and popularity since March 2008 general elections that saw it suffer its worst results in half a century.

The Barisan Nasional coalition is hoping to show it has regained support with promises of reform and leadership changes after losing five states and a third of parliamentary seats in the national polls.

The Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance, which made a failed bid to unseat the coalition late last year, wants to show it has retained support and that it is working effectively despite claims the partnership is cracking up.


The opposition is fielding a candidate from the conservative Islamic party PAS, setting up a clash with the candidate from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which heads the Barisan Nasional coalition.

Both parties represent the interests of Muslim Malays who dominate the population of multicultural Malaysia, and the vote will also be seen as a test of which party can claim dominance in the Malay heartland.

A poll of Kuala Terengganu voters by the Merdeka Centre research firm found that for Malays the top issue was "strengthening the position of Islam".

It said that Muslims in the state want to see their government give more funding for maintaining mosques, providing services for religious pilgrimages and supporting Muslim charities.


A PAS call to reintroduce "hudud" Islamic law, including the amputation of hands for thieves, created controversy during the campaign and was highlighted by the government as it campaigned for support from ethnic Chinese voters.

A top figure in the Chinese-based Democratic Action Party (DAP), a member of the opposition alliance, warned the issue could scuttle the partnership.

However, the Merdeka Centre polls found that just 18 percent of Chinese voters in the electorate saw the issue as "very important".


While political leaders and the media discuss national issues, on the streets of Kuala Terengganu the talk is mostly about local affairs.

There are allegations that the state government, run by the Barisan Nasional, has misspent money on expensive projects including a lavish riverside "Crystal Mosque" and the international Monsoon Cup yacht race.

The opposition said the money would be better spent on relieving poverty and improving infrastructure in Terengganu, which is rich in oil but remains one of the poorest of Malaysia's states.

"We don't want a Monsoon Cup, we want a monsoon drain," said one political pamphlet.


The opposition has accused the government of vote-buying and coercion, allegations it denies and says the opposition is merely making excuses for an impending defeat.

The top election official in the state quit on Thursday following claims that he told civil servants to vote for the coalition or face the sack.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim accused the government of buying votes for 300-400 ringgit (85-110 dollars) from Muslim Malays, whose support it can no longer take for granted after the shock general election results.

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