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Malaysia's new PM faces referendum in April polls

world Updated: Feb 14, 2009 02:38 IST
Razak Ahmad
Razak Ahmad
Reuters
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Malaysia's incoming prime minister will face his first referendum in two simultaneous by-elections just days after taking office in early April.

The polls, to be held a month after the government's rollout of a second stimulus package, will also gauge public acceptance of Najib Razak's management of a country whose exports are tumbling and whose economy looks set to slide into its first likely recession in eight years.

The outcome of the votes will not alter the national political power balance, but opposition victory will keep Anwar Ibrahim and his alliance on track as contenders to win power in the next general elections due by 2013.

Anwar's People's Alliance won control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and denied the government its iron-clad two-thirds parliament majority in last year's general elections.

It has also won two by-elections in the last six months, but suffered a recent setback after losing control of the state of Perak in a political coup by the National Front.

"Whether intended or not, the timing of the two polls means it will be seen as referendum on Najib as Prime Minister," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of respected opinion pollster the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research.

The by-elections, called after the death of an MP in Perak and the resignation of a state lawmaker in neighbouring Kedah state, will be held simultaneously on April 7, the Election Commission announced Friday.

The polls are a just week after Najib takes office as Malaysia's sixth Prime Minister with poll ratings that stand at 41 percent versus 46 percent for incumbent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

That the polls will happen only after Najib's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party completes internal elections where Najib stands unopposed as party president, will allow the party to close ranks before heading for the vote.

The Democratic Action Party (DAP). one of three members of the People's Alliance, accused the Election Commission of giving UMNO, the lead component in the National Front, an unfair advantage.

"The fractious and internecine UMNO party elections until March 28 had been the primary consideration of the Election Commission ... so that the campaign will be held after the UMNO elections and Najib has become the Prime Minister," said DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang.

Observers are keenly watching how voters will take to the second stimulus package that Najib, who is also finance minister, will table in parliament on March 10.

Najib has not revealed any details about the spending plans beyond the fact that it will be larger than the 7 billion Malaysian ringgit ($1.94 billion) stimulus announced in November.

Najib on Thursday announced a 21 million ringgit allocation from the second stimulus package would be given to mission schools in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, where Anwar has been trying to make inroads.

Campaigning will be especially intense for the Bukit Gantang parliament seat in Perak, where public anger over the coup against the Pakatan Rakyat remains high.

Merdeka Center's poll of Perak residents released on Thursday found 66 percent of respondents said they rejected the Najib-engineered takeover.