Embattled PM’s coalition triumphs in Malaysian state poll
Malaysia’s ruling coalition romped to victory in elections in the country’s largest state Saturday, providing some relief for Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is under fire over allegations of massive graft.
The vote in Sarawak, on Borneo island, has been closely watched for clues that Najib’s troubles have eroded ruling-coalition support as national elections loom by mid-2018.
But parties aligned to the ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front) gained 17 seats, giving them a total of 72 and a resounding majority in the 82-seat state assembly, according to Malaysian media.
The BN was likely aided by its well-established political machine, a burst of government spending announcements in the polls run-up and the creation of 11 new seats in its stronghold areas.
Disunity in Malaysia’s opposition may also have helped, with candidates competing head-to-head in some areas.
Najib led the BN — in power since independence in 1957 — to its worst-ever showing in 2013 national elections amid voter concerns over the economy, corruption and alleged government repression.
It now faces allegations billions of dollars were plundered from a debt-stricken state-owned investment fund Najib founded in 2009.
The accusations, which burst forth last year, include the revelation Najib received at least $681 million in deposits to his personal bank accounts in 2013.
Najib and the state company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad, steadfastly deny the money was syphoned from 1MDB, but the prime minister has sparked anger by shutting down investigations and sidelining critics.
A recent independent survey found most Sarawakians support the BN-aligned state government, however, and were little swayed by the Najib graft allegations.
Sarawak holds state-assembly elections out of sync with the rest of Malaysia.
Allegations of electoral abuses have marred the polls, including the redistricting exercise that created 11 new seats, which critics have labelled gerrymandering by the ruling coalition.
The state government has also blocked opposition politicians and activists from entering to campaign, using entry controls Sarawak retained when it joined Malaysia in the 1960s.
The result may allow Najib to claim his government retains popularity despite the scandal.
But Sarawak, separated from mainland Malaysia by the South China Sea, is somewhat firewalled from political developments in the rest of the country, and only national elections can provide a clear indication of sentiment toward Najib.
Known for its vast tropical forests, mighty rivers and array of Borneo tribal communities, Sarawak is one of Malaysia’s least-developed states.
It has remained so under decades of ruling-coalition government, despite abundant energy, timber and hydroelectric resources, and its government has been accused of blatant corruption.
But the BN-aligned parties who control it continue to hold sway over voters, particularly in the vast rural interior, due in part to a reputation for protecting the state’s autonomy from more populous mainland Malaysia.
The ruling coalition controls 10 Malaysian states, and the opposition three.
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