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Malaysia's new premier on trial in polls.

KUALA LUMPUR, April 7 Kyodo

Nearly 100,000 Malaysians began casting their votes Tuesday in three simultaneous by-elections that are widely seen as a referendum on new Prime Minister Najib Abddul Razak and his reform pledges.

The by-elections in Perak, Kedah, and Sarawak states, however, will not make a difference in the current power equation. The battle in Perak is for a parliamentary constituency while the other two involve state legislative seats.

Polling comes just five days after Najib was sworn in as prime minister, replacing Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Badawi was forced to step aside by his party due to the poor showing of the ruling National Front (BN) coalition in last year's general election.

''I don't want to be over-confident, but the winds of change are blowing in our favor,'' the head of BN's election campaign team, Muhyiddin Yassin, was quoted saying in the New Straits Times online edition late Monday.

Among the reasons he cited for his confidence was the appointment of Najib as prime minister and the return of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in the 13-party BN coalition.

Since taking office, Najib has been pushing the right buttons so far. He released 13 people held under the controversial Internal Security Act which allows the police to detain anyone without trial for an indefinite period. He pledged to review the ISA.

He has also lifted a ban on two opposition-owned publications and on late Monday told a gathering of newsmen to report on the government and its leaders ''without fear of the consequences.''

The opposition, however, are not impressed, dismissing the moves as election gimmicks.

In their campaign, they have attacked Najib over his alleged links with the murder of a Mongolian model whose former lover was a close aide of Najib.

''Najib continues to face a credibility challenge,'' Bridget Welsh, an associate professor in Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins University in the United States, wrote in the online newspaper Malaysiakini on Monday.

''Although he has asked for time to deliver, he is being tested just days into office,'' she wrote.

Mahathir, who left UMNO a year ago because he could not stand his handpicked successor, Abdullah, returned to the fold on Saturday and immediately went into action, campaigning for BN in the by-elections and calling for voters to support Najib's administration.

''I have full confidence that Datuk Seri Najib can address the problems in the country. I am also confident that he will take Malaysia to new heights benefiting all the races in the country,'' the octogenarian said in a rally in Perak.

Whether Mahathir can still sway voters is yet to be seen, but his presence and Najib's new leadership have definitely reenergized UMNO, which in the past few years has been wrecked by factionalism.

UMNO and BN are counting on the Malay votes as observers believed the non-Malays are still very much with the opposition, except maybe in Sarawak where the ethnic Ibans are the majority and are traditionally with BN.

Local dynamics also came into play in the by-elections.

In Perak, the poll is also viewed as a test on the legitimacy of the BN state government, which came to power through the backdoor. Perak was ruled by the opposition alliance following their victory in the 2008 general election, but the opposition government collapsed after several of their lawmakers jumped ship.

In that election, the state's former chief minister, Mohamad Nizar Jamaluddin from the opposition Pan Islamic Party, is facing off against UMNO's Ismail Saffian.

In Kedah, a record 15 candidates are vying for the seat although the main fight is between BN and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's People's Justice Party (PKR).

In Sarawak, Anwar is trying to crack open a BN fortress. Sarawak and Sabah, the two states in Borneo, are the last frontier in his ambition to become the next prime minister. But the ethnic make-up and the issues in Borneo are markedly different from West Malaysia and the opposition parties are not as cohesive.

Results of the triple elections are expected before midnight Tuesday.
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Publication:Asian Political News
Geographic Code:9MALA
Date:Apr 13, 2009
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