SINGAPORE — The stakes are high for Malaysia’s leading party and its archrival when they meet Saturday in a crucial by-election whose outcome will be decided by the Chinese minority holding the balance of power.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the theocratic Islamic Party (PAS) will trade blows in a straight fight supported by their respective Chinese allies, the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). Their bruising contest will take place in the constituency of Sanggang, a sprawling cluster of villages and small towns right in the rural heartland of the state of Pahang.

Sanggang is located about 140 km to the east of the bustling Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur and 130 km west of the Pahang capital of Kuantan. For UMNO, victory at Sanggang would not only be an endorsement of the policies the party as leader of the ruling National Front (NF) coalition espoused in the Nov. 29 general election; it will also reaffirm the leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his deputy Abdullah Badawi, both of whom have been returned unopposed as party president and deputy president respectively for the coming UMNO polls in mid-May.

For PAS, victory would not only lead to a consolidation of its electoral gains at the expense of UMNO in the last general election; it would also spur the Islamic party’s moves to capture other Malay-majority states like Kedah, Perlis and Pahang.

Were it not for the by-election, the rest of Malaysia would continue to be oblivious to a typical rural backwater like Sanggang, where farmers, petty shopkeepers and rubber tappers quietly get on with their humdrum daily lives, and buffaloes laze in paddy fields.

But Sanggang came alive March 21 when nominations were called for a by-election to fill the vacancy after incumbent state assemblyman Abdullah Kia died in late February following a stroke. The sleepy hollow suddenly found itself deluged with the colorful posters, flags and banners of the archrivals as their top leaders and numerous supporters made a beehive for Sanggang in their Mercedes-Benzes, Pajero jeeps and other cars on nomination day.

The campaigns of the UMNO-led coalition and PAS, which began slowly, have gained momentum with intense house-to-house canvassing, taking on a carnival atmosphere. The ethnic composition of the 15,276 Sanggang voters is a key factor in understanding the intensity of the contest: the Muslim-Malays comprise about 60 percent of the voters, against 35 percent Chinese and 5 percent Indians.

In the 1999 general election, the majority Malay vote was split between UMNO and PAS, with PAS securing a larger slice. But the overwhelming support of the minority Chinese and to some extent the Indians, tipped the scales in favor of the NF, and UMNO won, albeit narrowly, when its candidate polled 6,008 votes to PAS’s 4,970 votes.

The split in the Malay vote stemmed mainly from the unhappiness of many Malays, including UMNO members, over what they felt to be Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s “extremely harsh” treatment of his sacked deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim, who had not only been jailed six years for corruption, but is currently on trial for sodomy.

As a sign of protest, they had voted for PAS even though they might not like the party. PAS was thus able to win in overwhelmingly Malay-majority constituencies, but in areas with significant numbers of Chinese voters like Sanggang, UMNO had won because its ally, the MCA, had succeeded in convincing the Chinese that a vote for PAS meant an “Islamic state” with all its numerous taboos and laws against non-Muslims.

The NF has been working very hard to ensure a 100 percent turnout of their members come Saturday, polling day. But its moves so far have been fraught with obstacles. Many UMNO members, who have not fully accepted Mahathir’s explanations over the Anwar issue, continue to feel that the move by the party supreme council to ensure a no-contest ruling for the presidency and deputy presidency contradicts the principle of democracy that UMNO champions.

As such, if they become susceptible to a PAS move to stir dissatisfaction against UMNO and Mahathir in retaliation for the NF’s recent moves against the opposition party, they might come out in large numbers to vote.

The government had also drastically restricted the circulation of the popular PAS organ, Harakah, by allowing it to publish on a bimonthly instead of a biweekly basis. It charged both Harakah’s editor and a DAP lawyer defending Anwar with sedition, and in the process angered PAS, DAP and the National Justice Party, led by Anwar’s wife.

The Sanggang by-election, the first in the new millennium and after last year’s general election, promises to be a closely-fought contest between the two Malay archrivals supported by their Chinese allies. Its implications will be far-reaching for Malaysian politics long after the votes are counted Saturday night.

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