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Voting begins in Malaysian by-election

world Updated: Jan 17, 2009 10:57 IST

Voting began on Saturday for a parliamentary by-election seen as a popularity test for Malaysia's ruling coalition, nearly a year after its worst performance in national polls.

The heated contest for the seat in northeastern Terengganu state is mainly between Wan Ahmad Farid Wan Salleh from the National Front coalition and Mohammad Abdul Wahid Endut for the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.

A third candidate, independent Azharudin Mamat, is also standing. Security was tight at 36 polling centers where supporters from both sides carried banners and jeered at each other. A total of 80,229 voters will pick a new federal lawmaker for Kuala Terengganu city, with results released late on Saturday, election officials said. The seat fell vacant after the National Front's incumbent, who narrowly defeated an opposition candidate last year, died in November.

The results of the election will not change the balance of power in Parliament, where Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's National Front retains a comfortable majority.

But the National Front is anxious to prevent a second consecutive electoral loss after former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim won a by-election in September to return to Parliament as opposition leader after a 10-year gap.

The poll is also seen as an indicator of popularity for Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak who is leading the coalition campaign before he takes over the premiership by April.

But some political analysts predicted a victory for the Islamic party, which is part of a three-member opposition alliance led by Anwar.

The independent Merdeka Center research group, which polled more than 500 Terengganu voters recently, has said support for both sides appeared evenly split among Malay majority voters but the ethnic Chinese minority showed "a slight leaning in favor of the opposition."

The National Front's popularity plunged last year amid growing complaints by Chinese and Indian minorities of racial discrimination. Many Malays also backed the opposition in general elections last March because of dissatisfaction with rising prices, corruption and crime.

Both the coalition and opposition candidate were among the early voters.

"I hope that voters will come out early. I hope that the fair weather is a sign of (the National Front's) victory," said Wan Ahmad Farid, a former deputy home minister.