| KUCHING, Malaysia, April 15
KUCHING, Malaysia, April 15 Malaysia's
government will likely retain control of a key state which heads
to the polls on Saturday but significant opposition gains in the
ruling coalition's bastion could delay Prime Minister Najib
Razak's pursuit of economic reform.
The Sarawak poll will provide a reading of public support
for the coalition as Najib considers calling a snap general
election to consolidate his grip on power and overhaul
Malaysia's economy to attract investors.
"This is the biggest political test for Najib ahead of the
next general election and if the opposition makes major inroads
it may force him to delay the next general election," said
Ibrahim Suffian, director of the independent opinion polling
outfit, Merdeka Center.
A strong win in the resource rich but rural state on Borneo
island could hasten the next general election which isn't due
until 2013, and further weaken Anwar Ibrahim's opposition
alliance which has been on the back foot since scoring its best
win in 2008 national polls.
Support for the ruling National Front coalition has been
eroded by complaints of religious discrimination and
dissatisfaction with the state's long-serving chief minister.
Analysts polled by Reuters last month predicted that Najib's
coalition would secure a two-thirds majority, with the
opposition seen as not strong enough to mount a serious
But the opposition could increase its seats from 7 to 18 in
the 71-seat legislature on voter unhappiness about rural
poverty, government corruption allegations and the rule of chief
minister Taib Mahmud, said political analyst Ong Kian Ming.
The opposition is looking to make inroads in Sarawak to
rejuvenate its bid for national power after being weakened by a
string of recent local election losses.
The opposition's campaign events in many urban seats have
consistently drawn thousands of supporters, signalling strong
support, with colourful banners strung up throughout the state
capital Kuching asking the electorate to "vote for change".
"We've been promised development by the government for
decades, but it's only when elections happen that they get
serious about it," said Rubiah Karim, a 47-year-old general
worker at a laundromat in Kuching. "A lot of people are fed up."
Despite the ruling coalition's attacks on Anwar, who is
battling a sodomy charge in court and allegations of involvement
in a sex video scandal, both of which he has denied, a close
fight is expected in Sarawak.
"This state election will have an impact nationally, and the
people will signal that they reject the politics of corruption
and cruelty," Anwar told reporters in Kuching on Friday.
The most heated contests are taking place at 12 seats
dominated by ethnic Chinese. At the last election, the ruling
coalition won 6 of these seats.
The outcome in these seats will be read as a barometer of
Najib's efforts to regain support from Malaysia's minorities who
abandoned the ruling coalition in 2008 national polls, leading
to record losses for the government of the Muslim-majority
Ethno-religious tensions have been fuelled by an ongoing
court row over the right of Malay-speaking Christians to use the
word "Allah", which in early 2010 led to attacks on places of
The dispute also saw the government seizing Malay language
Bibles, sparking anger among the country's Christians who make
up 9.1 percent of the population and over 40 percent of the
population in Sarawak. [ID:nL3E7EU1IH]
Efforts are ongoing between the government and church groups
to resolve the Bible issue, but widening opposition support in
Sarawak will signal continuing anger and trouble for Najib in
regaining support from minorities at the next general election.
OSK Research in a March 21 note said that with voter
unhappiness in the state over the Bible seizure issue, "the
election results may be uncertain and may add to market
(Editing by Liau Y-Sing and Raju Gopalakrishnan)