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Voting opens in key Malaysia by-election

Voting began in a fiercely contested by-election in Malaysia's northeast that could end up undermining the country's incoming prime minister if the government loses.

world Updated: Jan 17, 2009 08:56 IST

Voting began on Saturday in a fiercely contested by-election in Malaysia's northeast that could end up undermining the country's incoming prime minister if the government loses.

The vote in Kuala Terengganu took place amid a heavy police presence and pitted the coalition that has ruled this Southeast Asian country of 27 million people for 51 years against an Islamist party that is part of Anwar Ibrahim's opposition alliance.

Early voting was brisk in Kuala Terengganu, a city of almost 300,000 people where the streets were festooned with green and white banners of the Islamists and the scales of justice of the ruling National Front coalition.

"I chose the candidate and party that can really fight for Islam," said Ismail Abdul, a 59-year old market trader after he cast his vote in a mainly ethnic Malay ward.

Malay Muslims, the core support for the government, account for 88 per cent of voters here, well above the national average of 60 per cent, and they have increasingly shifted support to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which wants an Islamic state.

A big loss for Najib Razak who in March will take over the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation, the main party in a government that is still reeling from heavy losses in last year's general election, could reignite party infighting.

"Najib is in store for a time of political uncertainty if PAS wins this election but this would almost certainly be magnified if PAS wins this by a big margin," said political analyst Kian Ming Ong.

Najib has failed once already as he led the government campaign in a by-election in August last year when Anwar was returned to parliament with a huge majority after a ban following imprisonment for sodomy in the late 1990s.

As well as rebuilding the fractured ruling coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties, Najib needs to deal with rising economic problems at a time when Malaysia looks set for its first recession in eight years.

The one opinion poll that has been published gave a narrow advantage to PAS while internal polls undertaken by the two main parties gave PAS a majority of up to 2,000 votes while others gave Najib's UMNO a win ranging from the low hundreds to 800.

The government won the seat which has just over 80,000 voters, by a slim margin of 628 votes in March 2008.

Important for Anwar

While Najib has the most to lose, Anwar would also be vulnerable if the government manages to retain the seat.

There are tensions in the three-party alliance between PAS and the ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party which is wary of PAS plans for an Islamic state.

Anwar's credibility as a leader has also been hurt badly by his failure to deliver on promises to win over sufficient government MPs to take power in September last year and a poor showing here could split his alliance.

Many older voters remain loyal to UMNO and say its has helped develop the country. They also respect Najib who is the son of Malaysia's second prime minister.

"We have to be thankful for all the progress we have had from the government and for the contributions of our past leaders," said Khatijah Mohd, 73.

Polls close at 5 pm (0900 GMT) and results are due by 10.30 pm (1430 GMT).