Close Election Leaves Malaysian Premier's Fate Uncertain

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Though it held on to power in the election on Sunday, the governing National Front coalition suffered an important loss: for the first time in 44 years, it failed to win more than 50 percent of the popular vote. Analysts said it left Prime Minister Najib Razak's position far from secure.

Mr. Najib and his National Front coalition, which has governed Malaysia since independence in 1957, won 133 of the 222 seats in Parliament on Sunday, aided by favorably drawn district boundaries. News of the victory prompted Malaysian stocks to surge nearly 8 percent on Monday, and the country's currency, the ringgit, jumped in value.

Both had been depressed by signs that the National Front was in greater danger of losing power than ever before. As it was, the three-party opposition People's Alliance took seven seats from the National Front, extending the gains it made in the last election in 2008, when the Front lost the two-thirds majority that had allowed it to amend the Constitution at will. The 2008 vote hastened the resignation of Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as prime minister the next year, giving way to Mr. Najib.

The leader of the People's Alliance, Anwar Ibrahim, said Monday that the latest election was marred by fraud and that his coalition would challenge the results of some races.

Mr. Najib was sworn in for a five-year term on Monday at the National Palace, though analysts said the electoral victory did nothing to burnish his leadership mandate.

"The prime minister has been strategizing and campaigning for this day for many years," said Karim Raslan, a Malaysian newspaper columnist and political observer. "Many in the ruling elite will look at the results and ask, 'Is that all?' "

The huge turnout in the election -- 80 percent, a record -- broke along racial lines that analysts said would be troublesome for Mr. Najib. The country's Malay majority, concentrated in the countryside, voted for the governing coalition in greater numbers than in 2008. Chinese-Malaysian voters overwhelmingly backed the opposition, including the Democratic Action Party, which is dominated by ethnic Chinese.

Mr. Najib, 59, told reporters early on Monday that he had not expected that trend. But Lim Teck Ghee, head of the Center for Policy Initiatives in Kuala Lumpur, said the prime minister "needs to play to the Malay gallery even after the election has been won," to keep rivals at bay in his own party, the United Malays National Organization, which dominates the 13-member National Front.

Mr. Anwar, 65, the opposition leader, is a former deputy prime minister who was ousted from the organization in a 1998 party struggle and was later imprisoned. He said Monday that the People's Alliance would challenge the announced results in 30 to 40 races he said were tainted by fraud, and would begin holding rallies this week, calling for the ruling coalition to hand over power peacefully.

"We want the unique experience of transitions through elections, and not Tahrir Square," he said, referring to the mass protests in Cairo that brought down President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011.

"We have to give a clear message to Najib that there's a limit to people's patience, and never underestimate the capacity of people to move and demand," Mr. Anwar said. "After all, what are we demanding? We are demanding free and fair elections."

Opposition workers and independent election monitors have accused the government of a host of vote-rigging tactics, including stacking the election commission with partisans, marshaling foreign laborers to vote using illegal identity cards and marking the voters' fingers with supposedly indelible ink that could easily be wiped off.

"These reports have led us to question the legitimacy of some of the results," Ambiga Sreenevasan, head of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, said Monday. The group demanded an investigation and called on the election commission to resign.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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