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Opposition Deals Stunning Blow to Malaysia's Long-Ruling Coalition


Malaysia's long-ruling multi-racial coalition has suffered a significant setback in general elections, losing key states and a large number of seats in the parliament. Results from Saturday's poll pave the way for possible reforms that opposition groups have been demanding as the country deals with racial tensions, corruption, and economic worries. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from Kuala Lumpur.

The ruling Barisan Nasional - or National Front - coalition retained its majority in the parliament, but for the first time since 1969 lost the two-thirds necessary to carry out constitutional reforms.

Results Sunday showed a number of states went to the opposition in what observers rate as the worst setback the coalition has suffered since it gained control of the government at independence from Britain in 1957.

The coalition was sure it would win these elections. In the last poll in 2004, Barisan Nasional won more than 90 percent of parliamentary seats. Now, it will have only a simple majority.

The Barisan Nasional coalition consists of race-specific parties that represent each of the major ethnic groups. Many ethnic Indians and others, however, accuse the coalition of becoming complacent and failing to look after their interests.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's government called the early elections after months of street demonstrations and growing anger by ethnic minorities, especially Indians, who have been protesting what they say is discrimination against them by the country's majority Muslim Malay people.

The government cracked down on those protests, which it said were illegal, using water cannon and tear gas. Protest organizers are now in jail. On Saturday, some of the protesters were back to show their discontent - this time at the ballot box. Bala Krishnan, a 50 year old truck driver, was one of them.

"For 50 years, we really believed this government would do everything," Krishnan. "But for 50 years, it never gave this race, the Indian community, good jobs, government jobs, university opportunities, so the people hope (that with) the opposition party coming at least some, they will (raise) questions in the parliament. At least something new will come, we hope. That's why we totally want the opposition to come in to fight for us. Because we believed the government for so long, we believed and we voted for the government, until now."

The largest of the minority groups, the Chinese, also delivered a strong blow on the ruling coalition. The northern Malaysian state of Penang - where ethnic Chinese make up a majority - was among those that went to the opposition.

Malaysia - one Southeast Asia's strongest economies - has long taken pride in its image of ethnic harmony among its Muslim Malay majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. Minorities, however, complain that a system of providing special housing, business, and educational benefits to Malay Muslims is depriving them of opportunities and relegating them to second-class citizens.

Also going to the opposition were some conservative Muslims who complain the Barisan Nasional's Muslim Malay components are veering away from Islamic ways.

The ruling coalition's loss of the two-thirds majority needed in the parliament to make constitutional changes means the mandate of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has been significantly weakened. Mr. Badawi has denied reports that he might step down.

The elections were marred by violence. Police in one northern state, Terengganu, used tear gas to disperse opposition supporters who smashed windows on cars and buses on claims they were being used to bring in unregistered voters.

The government appealed for calm as election results were finalized.

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