Malaysia's ruling alliance Pakatan Harapan (PH) yesterday retained a Selangor assembly seat in a closely watched by-election, in a blow to former premier Najib Razak who actively campaigned for the losing side Umno.
Still, the former Umno president could perhaps take heart that his party managed to sharply reduce the majority won by the PH candidate.
The Umno candidate for the Sungai Kandis contest, Datuk Lokman Adam, is a member of Umno's supreme council and was Najib's former communications director at the Finance Ministry.
Total turnout was 49.4 per cent of the 51,217 registered voters, one of the lowest seen in a by-election. Analysts ascribed this to voter fatigue just a few months after the May 9 general election. Voter turnout was 85.8 per cent in May.
PH's Mr Mohd Zawawi Ahmad Mughni, a principal at an Islamic school in the ward, received 61.4 per cent of the valid votes cast - 25,130. This was higher than the 55.6 per cent the previous PH lawmaker received in May.
The seat became vacant following the death of state assemblyman Mat Shuhaimi Shafiei due to lymphoma.
Mr Lokman polled 9,585 votes or 38.1 per cent, higher than the party's 26.7 per cent in May. The third candidate, who is an unknown independent, received 97 votes.
Mr Mohd Zawawi and Mr Lokman received higher vote percentages because in May, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) and a small party had turned Sungai Kandis into a four-cornered fight. The Islamist party had at that time received 17.5 per cent of the valid votes cast.
But PAS sat out the contest this time around and urged its followers to vote for Umno.
Mr Mohd Zawawi won by a majority of 5,842 votes, sharply lower than the 12,480 votes PH polled in the May general election.
The Sungai Kandis vote was closely tracked as it was the first by-election since Najib's Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was toppled from federal power. Najib and Umno-led BN were seeking a rebound in their political fortune.
PH, meanwhile, wanted affirmation that Malay voters remain firmly with the alliance amid the playing up of Malay and Islamic issues by Umno and its ally PAS in the last two months. Malays form 72 per cent of the registered voters. Ethnic Chinese and Indians were largely expected to remain with PH.
Observers noted that Najib was apparently helming the Sungai Kandis campaign instead of new Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi. The defeat might now be placed on Najib's lap by his critics.
"I think Najib no longer commands the support of the people, especially after this result. Umno must push forward and Zahid as president must be the face of the party," said political analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani of BowerGroupAsia.
The PH victory also raised questions about the closer ties forged by Umno and former rival PAS, as it was unclear that many PAS voters had backed Umno.
Mr Seah Hong Yee, central region coordinator for electoral reform group Engage, said: "What is observed is BN seems to have lost almost all the younger voters and (those in) urban areas. In some rural areas, they seemed to also have lost the oldest group (of voters)."