Ruling Barisan Nasional expected to easily win twin by-elections today

Six Malaysian fishermen detained by Indonesia for alleged poaching returning home after being freed. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he had intervened to get the six - two from Sungai Besar and four from Johor - released.
Six Malaysian fishermen detained by Indonesia for alleged poaching returning home after being freed. Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said he had intervened to get the six - two from Sungai Besar and four from Johor - released.PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Analysts see wider margins with disunited opposition; watchful eye on Mahathir effect

Malaysian voters in two parliamentary constituencies will pick their MPs today after an intense two- week campaign for the twin by-elections, with analysts expecting the ruling coalition to retain its seats by a wider margin.

The election outcome in the seats of Kuala Kangsar in Perak state and Sungai Besar in Selangor won't alter the government, but pundits have been closely watching the race to gauge the current standing of both the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition and that of the opposition parties. The by-elections could well be the last ones before Malaysia's general election, due in 2018.

Also being monitored closely is whether these two Malay-majority constituencies would be swayed by the campaigning of former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has been berating Prime Minister Najib Razak over a financial scandal revolving around state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and a mysterious US$680 million (S$918 million) found in Datuk Seri Najib's personal bank accounts in 2013.

But with the opposition disunited, the two Umno candidates representing BN are expected to win easily, analysts say.

"BN would have an easier win in these by-elections with opposition votes split," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre.

Campaigning stopped at midnight yesterday, with voting today from 8am to 5pm. The results are expected by around 9pm tonight. The by-elections are held following the death of two MPs in a helicopter crash last month in Sarawak.

In the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, the four-way fight involves a little-known independent candidate, BN, and politicians from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and the new Parti Amanah Negara.

In Sungai Besar, the three-way fight involves BN, Amanah and PAS, with the Islamic party pushing for the controversial Islamic penal code to be introduced in Malaysia.

Amanah makes up one-third of the new opposition alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH), along with Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat. PAS, which was part of a previous alliance, is excluded from PH, handing Najib-led BN a big advantage in the first by-elections in Peninsular Malaysia since the 1MDB scandal broke last year.

In a match akin to David versus Goliath, BN sent over 10 Cabinet ministers to campaign and promised millions of dollars in development projects and assistance.

On his Facebook account, Mr Najib yesterday told voters "not to be deceived by the lies and wicked political games of the opposition".

The opposition parties' bigwigs showed up to campaign for their little-known candidates. But with limited funds, their efforts paled in comparison with BN's larger events.

"The turnout would likely be lower with voters less enthusiastic about the elections," said Merdeka's Mr Ibrahim.

As a new party, Amanah's first election contests in Peninsular Malaysia could also be a test of its survivability. Its lack of exposure among rural folk, who are mostly comfortable with BN or PAS, could serve as Amanah's Achilles' heel.

For Tun Dr Mahathir, who became the first former premier to stump for the opposition during an election, a win by BN could be read as a sign of his waning influence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Ruling BN expected to easily win twin by-elections today'. Print Edition | Subscribe