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Malaysia Ruling Coalition Remains in Power Amid Opposition Election Gains

  • Luis Ramirez

Officials in Malaysia say the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has won a majority in Saturday's general election, although opposition parties have scored big gains. VOA's Luis Ramirez, in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, reports that violence and accusations of fraud marred the elections, which were overshadowed by racial tensions in a nation that prides itself on ethnic harmony among its Malay, Chinese and Indian population.

Voting went peacefully in the capital, with Malaysians lining up throughout the day Saturday to cast ballots. For weeks, pundits have predicted that Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's Barisan Nasional, or National Front, coalition would win as it has every election since independence in the 1950s.

The coalition's selling point in these elections was that its policies have brought stability to Malaysia and made its economy one of the most robust in the region.

However, allegations of corruption, racial tensions, and worries over the economy strengthened the opposition. A voter in Kuala Lumpur, says he cast his ballot for the opposition Pan Malaysian Islamic party, the PAS. He says he is disillusioned with the ruling coalition because he says it does not espouse the values of Islam - Malaysia's predominant religion.

VOTER: "I think [it is] better we vote Islamic. [With the] Islamic [party], no corruption."

REPORTER: "[What about] Barisan Nasional?

VOTER: "No. It is not very clear about the Islamic way. Time for change."

Violence broke out in the northeastern Malaysian state of Terennganu, where police fired tear gas to disperse an angry group of PAS party supporters, who threw rocks at cars and buses that were transporting voters to the polls. Witnesses said the rioters were trying to stop the buses on claims they were carrying unregistered voters to cast illegal ballots.

The government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi called these elections months after police cracked down on thousands of ethnic Indians who took to the streets protesting what they say is discrimination at the hands of the country's majority Malay Muslims.

The ruling coalition consists of race-specific parties that are supposed to represent the interests of each group. Kannan Ramasamy is an ethnic Indian activist with the Hindu Rights Action Force, a group that is fighting to stop what it says is the systematic destruction of Hindu temples and application of Sharia law to non-Muslims. He says many ethnic Indians are disillusioned with the coalition and want a system that will give them equality.

"We very much disagree with race based politics and we should be going forward to have unity politics," he said.

The sentiment is echoed by an ethnic Indian voter in an outlying district of the capital, where residents are fighting the impending destruction of another Hindu temple to make way for development. He says he voted for the opposition because he believes the ruling coalition has, after five decades in power, done nothing for ethnic Indians.

"Fifty years, they're failing. I'm suffering," he said. "The Indian community suffers. All the people suffer. What are they doing? Why are the grass-roots people suffering? That's why people are angry now. Why are they putting us separate? We are Malaysians. We are multi-races people here. Why are they doing this way?"

A longstanding system of providing set-asides for ethnic Malays has caused resentment among many ethnic Indians and Chinese who believe the affirmative action programs are depriving them of opportunities in education, business, and housing.