Malaysia's coalition government said on Wednesday it has seized control of a key state which the opposition alliance had held by a narrow margin.
Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said the government of northern Perak state which was voted in last March had collapsed with the defection of four legislators.
"I will seek an audience with the Perak sultan to inform him that Barisan Nasional in Perak now has sufficient support to form the new state government," he told a press conference.
As rumours circulated that its lawmakers were about to defect, the Pakatan Rakyat opposition alliance attempted to dissolve the state parliament and trigger fresh elections that pundits said it had a good chance of winning.
"We must go back to the people and get a fresh mandate," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said earlier.
"The BN are trying to form the state government by hook or by crook -- more by crook," he told AFP.
Anwar's opposition seized control of five states and a third of national parliamentary seats in general elections a year ago, transforming Malaysia's political landscape.
Since then the alliance has won two parliamentary by-elections, in a major psychological boost to its ambitions of seizing power.
The alliance had held 32 seats in the 59-seat Perak state assembly, with Barisan Nasional holding 27. Najib said one of the defectors would join BN and the others would be independent but support the government.
"We have 31 with us against 28," he said.
Najib, who is slated to take over from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi next March, dismissed suggestions the government could be discredited by seizing power through defections -- a practice usually frowned on in Malaysia.
"No. We didn't start this," he said of Anwar's failed attempt last year to topple the national government with the help of crossovers.
But Ibrahim Suffian, a pollster from the Merdeka Centre research firm, said the Barisan Nasional could suffer a backlash that would harm its efforts to claw back support after the March 2008 general elections.
"The long-term implication is that it will demonstrate to the people that BN is not willing to go through the democratic process to gain power, and will resort to measures like this," he said.
Ibrahim said the new state government would be predominantly made up of Muslim Malay legislators, not reflecting the large ethnic Chinese community in Perak.
"This will not help the BN put forward the appearance that they can form a multi-ethnic government in that state," he said.
The coalition has already suffered a huge drop in support from Malaysia's minority ethnic Chinese and Indians, which contributed to its unprecedented losses in the last general elections.