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Malaysian Ruling Coalition Wins Back Federal Parliamentary Seat - 2002-07-18

Malaysia's ruling coalition of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won back a federal parliamentary seat in a by-election Thursday from the pro-Islamic opposition. The opposition Pan Islamic Party narrowly managed to hold onto the state parliamentary seat that was also contested.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's governing coalition succeeded in clawing back support in a by-election Thursday, which marked a crucial test of support against the opposition Pan Islamic Party or PAS. Mr. Mahathir called the victory in northern Pendang "a good sign for the future," adding it was marked by a clear rise in support for the government.

The contest was the first between the governing coalition led by Mr. Mahathir's United National Malay Organization - UMNO - against the strongly pro-Islamic PAS, since the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. Mr. Mahathir's tough stance against Islamic militants has been largely welcomed by many middle-class Muslim Malaysians, as well as non-Muslim Indian and Chinese minorities.

The by-election followed the death of former Pan Islamic Party leader, Fadzil Noor, last month. Mr. Fadzil, who had been recovering in hospital, had passed away the same weekend. Mr. Mahathir announced he would step aside from the UMNO leadership late next year.

Mr. Fadzil's success in the 1999 national elections had come during a backlash against Mr. Mahathir over his firing of former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Mr. Anwar is now facing 15 years jail on corruption and sexual abuse charges, which he denies, saying he had been a victim of a government plot.

But the PAS's strong support for the introduction of a strict Islamic criminal code, called Hudud, throughout Malaysia may have led to the rise in support for the governing coalition. The code prescribes harsh punishments such as stoning and amputations.

Mr. Mahathir has consistently opposed such a move, saying Malaysia's present legal system is harmonious with the teachings of Islam, and he called for tolerance.

The election result for the state parliamentary seat was declared in the early evening, before the final tally for the federal seat. PAS youth leader, Mahfuz Omar, claimed the state seat victory was an endorsement of support for the hudud laws. Mr Mahfuz also added the victory was, in his words "a slap in the government's face," saying money politics and abuse of power was aimed at thwarting the Islamic struggle.

Analysts are now speculating whether the swing back to support for the governing national coalition will tempt Mr. Mahathir to call new elections before handing over power to his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in October 2003. The next general elections in Malaysia are not due until November 2004.