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Strict Islamic Law a Key Issue in Malaysian By-Elections - 2002-07-18

Voters in Malaysia have casts ballots in a key by-election that could foreshadow how well Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's governing coalition will do in the next general elections. The central issue is the introduction of Islamic law.

Malaysian voters turned out in force in the northern rural state of Kedah. The by-election is being seen as a crucial litmus test for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's party and governing coalition against the Pan Islamic Party, known as PAS.

At stake is a seat in the state assembly and one in Parliament left vacant by the death of former PAS leader, Fadzil Noor. He was considered a moderating influence on the party's hardliners who want to introduce a strict Islamic criminal code, called Hudud, throughout Malaysia. It proscribes harsh punishments such as stoning and amputations.

Prime Minister Mahathir has consistently opposed such a move, saying current laws are harmonious with the teachings of Islam and show tolerance for other religious groups.

Professor William Case, at Australia's Griffith University, says voters must consider whether they want to continue with a secular government - tarnished by decades in power, or a new party with radical changes in mind.

"Both of them, UMNO and PAS, are essentially Malay parties. But the UMNO can be understood mainly as secular and modernizing, but with some questions about corrupt practices and the like. The PAS is administratively clean, at least in the two state assemblies it controls. But at the same time it has given itself increasingly to Islamism," Mr. Case said.

The by-election is the first test of Mr. Mahathir's party in the coalition, the United Malays National Organization, since losing some seats to PAS in 1999's general elections.

The ruling coalition's popularity waned after the prime minister fired and jailed his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. But Mr. Mahathir appears to have gained support after taking a tough stand on terrorism following the September attacks in the United States.

Analysts said the Kedah state by-election could influence when the ruling coalition calls the next general elections, due in 2004. But since Prime Minister Mahathir announced last month he would be leaving politics before then, national elections are expected sooner.