Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition won a pair of by-elections on Saturday with bigger majorities, helping him solidify his grip on power.
Voters in Sungai Besar in Selangor state and Kuala Kangsar in the northern Perak region opted to keep ruling party lawmakers in the seats, with wider majorities than the 2013 federal election, according to the Election Commission.
The polls came after a helicopter crash last month killed incumbents from Najib’s United Malays National Organisation.
The vote was the first test of public support for Najib on peninsular Malaysia after a year of political turmoil over funding scandals. The size of the wins suggests Najib retains support within the broader Barisan Nasional coalition led by UMNO.
Still, turnout in the semi-urban constituencies was between 71 and 74 percent for the two seats, lower than the Election Commission’s forecast of 75 percent and shy of levels above 80 percent recorded in 2013. That was due to voters living in other cities and outside Malaysia who didn’t return to cast a ballot, official news agency Bernama said, citing EC Chairman Mohd Hashim Abdullah.
Former leader Mahathir Mohamad has recently lost traction in his bid to convince party officials that Najib is a liability and will cost them a reign unbroken since 1957. Most UMNO divisional chiefs back the premier, even amid concerns about slowing growth and its impact on ethnic Malays, the cornerstone of the party.
“Najib desperately needs these wins,” said Ahmad Martadha Mohamed, dean of the college of law, government and international studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia. “It will validate his position that despite all the problems he’s facing, they are able to win. Otherwise, his status will be in the balance, especially as president of UMNO.”
Barisan Nasional also secured a bigger majority in recent elections in Malaysia’s biggest state of Sarawak, but the vote across the South China Sea on Borneo island was dominated by local issues. Voters on the peninsula are more attuned to the turmoil surrounding the premier.
Najib, 62, has battled graft accusations since July, and denies wrongdoing. He was cleared by the attorney general this year over revelations that $681 million appeared in his accounts before the 2013 election. The money was a donation from the Saudi royal family and most was later returned, the government said. The premier has also been embroiled in probes into the finances of troubled state fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd.
Ministers in Najib’s cabinet made daily trips to the two constituencies before election day, shaking hands and at times handing out bags of rice and other aid to the poor. They sought to counter an opposition focusing on questions about Najib’s credibility. In a Twitter post on Friday, Najib told voters not to taken in by what he called the opposition’s games.
“I support the opposition more than BN, but you have to also think about who has better access to the government, who can get more things done and who can improve your life,” said Mei, an ethnic Chinese fruit seller in Sekinchan town in Sungai Besar who would give only a partial name. “You have to look out for your own interests, and not what the prime minister did or didn’t do.”
A divided opposition made it easier for BN coalition to win, and the presence of multiple candidates assisted it.
Two opposition groups ran against UMNO for both seats, while an independent candidate turned Kuala Kangsar into a four-cornered battle. UMNO won Sungai Besar in 2013 in a straight fight, and Kuala Kangsar in a three-way race, both by narrow margins.
UMNO retained the Sungai Besar seat by 9,191 votes, compared with a 399 vote majority in 2013. In Kuala Kangsar, its candidate — the widow of the parliamentarian who died in the helicopter crash — had 6,969 more votes than her nearest rival even though her Islamic mourning period meant she couldn’t campaign in public.
Racial and religious issues are coming to the fore of Malaysian politics, including the past two weeks of campaigning. UMNO, in power since independence, won the 2013 ballot by its slimmest-ever result as Chinese and Indian electors deserted Najib’s coalition.
Since then, Najib has wooed the Malay majority. He’s reached out to the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia and proposed they work to promote Islam’s doctrines. PAS, which is pushing for the Islamic penal code to be implemented in a state it controls, also competed on Saturday.
Under PAS’s hudud laws, adulterers and apostates could face death by stoning, while those found guilty of theft could have their hands amputated.
About 68 percent of voters in Kuala Kangsar are Malay, 24 percent are Chinese, and Indians and other ethnicities make up the rest, according to the Bernama news agency. In Sungai Besar, Malays make up about 67 percent of voters, while 31 percent are Chinese and the rest minority groups.
“The infighting within the opposition dampened the mood,” said Ibrahim Suffian, an analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in Kuala Lumpur. “A lot of young voters, the outstation voters just didn’t come back to vote, there is a lot of disillusionment,” he said.
“Many Chinese are not happy with the way the opposition has been going. BN has used the infighting to their advantage, and Najib is on much firmer ground than he was just after the general elections in 2013 even with the 1MDB issues,” Ibrahim said.