KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's opposition coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) scored a crushing victory in Cameron Highlands on Saturday (Jan 26) against the ruling Pakatan Harapan alliance in a closely-watched by-election.
BN retained the parliamentary seat in Pahang state with a 3,238-vote majority, official results show, compared to a margin of victory of just several hundred votes in the last two general elections in 2018 and 2013.
The BN win is a big morale booster as this was its first victory in five by-elections since being toppled from power in last May's general election.
Retired senior policeman Ramli Mohd Nor, 61, is the country's first Orang Asli (aboriginal people) from Peninsular Malaysia to become an MP, after taking 12,038 votes to the 8,800 received by the ruling Pakatan Harapan's (PH) Manogaran Marimuthu.
Though about 70 per cent of the 32,000 eligible voters cast their ballot - the highest turnout in the five by-elections - not enough outstation voters were among this number. PH had hoped that voters who work outside the rural Pahang constituency would return to swing the tide against the Umno-led BN's deep support among the Malays and Orang Asli tribesmen.
With opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia not running this time and instead throwing its weight behind the BN candidate, the big majority is the strongest indication yet that their pact to support each other on Malay Muslim issues is a formidable strategy in the hinterland.
"Umno remains overwhelmingly strong in rural constituencies and if their electoral pact with PAS to only run one candidate holds, they remain a force in these areas," senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times.
The loss is a blow to PH. It had in November won a court decision declaring BN's 567-vote victory in Cameron Highlands last year was unfair due to bribery.
PH's failure to overturn that narrow margin backs recent opinion surveys which have found lower approval for the government eight months in, as compared to when the Mahathir Mohamad administration was first installed.
"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 Prime Minister Mahathir returned to power, it was the first real bellwether for the government. The first three were for state assembly seats in Selangor won handsomely by PH last May.
The fourth was the forced vote in Port Dickson to allow Datuk Seri Anwar to return to Parliament after receiving a royal pardon from a controversial sodomy conviction.
For BN, the victory in the highlands is a much-needed fillip having been a shambles since losing power, with only three of 13 parties remaining in the coalition while it 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 on social media. The BN victory will give him belief that despite being swiftly forced to resign the Umno presidency soon after they lost power, his political career is far from over.
But with his corruption trial due to start on Feb 12, Mr Adib believes the by-election win "is a temporary respite" for Najib.
Pahang-born Ramli rose through the ranks and retired as Assistant Commissioner of Police after 34 years of service. He said during the campaign that "I hope the people here will vote for me as they need someone who can voice out their needs and problems".