Malaysia's opposition coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) scored a crushing victory in Cameron Highlands yesterday against the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance in a closely watched by-election.
Barisan retained the parliamentary seat in Pahang state with a 3,238-vote majority, official results show, compared with a margin of victory of just several hundred votes in the last two general elections in 2013 and last year.
The win by the Barisan coalition - which is led by Umno - is a big morale booster as this is its first victory in five by-elections - and one with the highest turnout-since being toppled from power in last May's general election.
Retired senior policeman Ramli Mohd Nor, 61, is the first MP to come from the indigenous Orang Asli community. He got 12,038 votes against PH candidate Manogaran Marimuthu's 8,800 votes.
About 70 per cent of the 32,000 eligible voters cast their votes. However, not enough voters who work outside the rural Pahang constituency returned to swing the tide against Barisan, as PH had hoped. BN's win was a sign of deep support from the Malays and Orang Asli tribesmen.
Opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) stayed out of the fray and threw its weight behind the BN candidate instead. The big vote margin is the strongest indication yet that their pact to support each other on Malay-Muslim issues is a formidable strategy in the hinterland.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun said: "Umno remains overwhelmingly strong in rural constituencies, and if their electoral pact with PAS to run only one candidate holds, they remain a force in these areas."
The loss is a blow to Pakatan, which in November won a court decision that declared BN's 567-vote victory in Cameron Highlands last year unfair because of bribery.
Pakatan's failure to overturn that narrow margin backs recent opinion surveys, which have found lower approval for the government eight months in, compared with the period when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's administration first came to power.
"The outcome shows that the government is still seen as the government of urban Malaysia," said Bower Group Asia director Adib Zalkapli.
Though this was the fifth by-election since Tun Dr Mahathir returned to power, it was the first real bellwether for the government. The first three were for state assembly seats in Selangor, which were won handsomely by PH last May.
The fourth was the forced vote in Port Dickson to allow PH leader Anwar Ibrahim to return to Parliament after receiving a royal pardon for a controversial sodomy conviction.
For Barisan, the victory in the highlands is a much-needed fillip. BN has been in a shambles since losing power, with only three out of 13 parties still in the coalition. It also continues to be stung by exposes of billion-ringgit scandals from when it was in power.
Former premier Najib Razak cannily chose Cameron Highlands, located in his home state of Pahang, to return to prominence, campaigning heavily on the ground and social media.
The BN victory will give him belief that despite being swiftly forced to resign the Umno presidency soon after losing power, his political career is far from over.
But with his corruption trial due to start on Feb 12, Mr Adib said he believes the by-election win "is a temporary respite" for Najib.
Mr Ramli, who was born in Pahang, rose through the ranks and retired as Assistant Commissioner of Police after 34 years of service.