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Both Sides Claim Victory in Malaysian Election

Saturday's local election in the Malaysia's Sarawak state, on the island of Borneo, did little to change the unsettled political situation in the country. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition retained it two thirds majority, but the opposition party made some gains, by capitalizing on discontent among ethnic Chinese.

Sarawak has been a traditional stronghold for the ruling coalition and it again won a two thirds majority in the state legislative assembly.

Although the opposition alliance failed in its stated goal to prevent the coalition from attaining the two thirds majority, it increased its number of seats from eight to 15. The opposition gains came mostly from the ethnic Chinese vote.

James Chin is a political science professor with Monash University in Kuala Lumpur. He says, on the local level, ethnic Chinese are tired of the 30-year rule of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud and the corruption charges against him.

On the national level, he says, they are angry that longstanding affirmative action policies giving ethnic Malays economic and educational privileges are still in place.

"I think the Chinese are quite frustrated. The original plan called a new economic policy on affirmative action was started in 1971. It was supposed to have a timeframe of about 20 years. But, after the 20 years were up, they simply extended the policy. So the Chinese feel the government is treating them badly," Chin said.

Political observers are analyzing these election results to measure how a national election may play out. In the 2008 general elections, the opposition alliance threatened the Barisan Nasional coalition's half-century grip on power by winning a third of the parliament seats. Since then, the leader of the opposition alliance, Anwar Ibrahim, was arrested on charges of sodomy.

The trial is still ongoing and, while many see it as politically motivated, it has cost the opposition some support. And, Chin says Prime Minister Najib Razak has gone back on his pledge to end affirmative action policies in order to boost political support with the majority ethnic Malays.

Prime Minster Najib is not required to call new elections for the national parliament until 2013, but may do so earlier. Seeing the rising dissatisfaction from ethnic Chinese, some political analysts say Najib is likely to wait. But Chin says, based the results of the Sarawak election, Najib could regain a two thirds majority in parliament without ethnic Chinese support.

"I suspect this will actually give the Prime Minster Najib the momentum to call for general elections sooner rather than later. He's got the political momentum now because he has won Sarawak and he has won all the recent by-elections in peninsular Malaysia,” Chin explained. “So I think the political momentum is very much with Najib and I expect him to call for general elections before the end of this year - or at the very latest the first quarter of next year."

Still he says, by pursuing the support of ethnic Malays with affirmative action policies, the prime minister will continue to lose support from other ethnic and religious groups.