KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia's opposition stunned the ruling coalition Sunday with an electoral victory in a Borneo island state that has long been a government stronghold.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's alliance narrowly wrested a parliamentary seat in the riverside town of Sibu in Sarawak state, where Prime Minister Najib Razak's National Front ruling coalition has enjoyed decades of support among the state's main population of indigenous tribes.
The state is politically crucial because Anwar's three-party alliance needs to win more parliamentary seats there if it wants to achieve its aim of seizing federal power in general elections expected before 2013.
The opposition won the seat by a razor-thin majority of 398 votes out of nearly 38,000 ballots cast, the Election Commission said. The result does not change the balance of power in Parliament, but it indicates the opposition could be gaining a long-elusive foothold in Sarawak.
Most constituencies in Sarawak comprise tribal communities that have traditionally voted for the National Front. Sibu has been under the National Front's control for many years, but two-thirds of its voters are minority ethnic Chinese, who have increasingly accused the ethnic Malay Muslim-dominated government of racial discrimination.
Lim Kit Siang, a senior opposition official, called it "a Sibu miracle."
The National Front had been expected to receive a strong boost after Najib made an unexpected visit Saturday to Sibu, which the ruling coalition won in 2008 general elections with a 3,235-vote majority.
The prime minister pledged to spend 5 million ringgit ($1.5 million) for infrastructure to curb flash floods in Sibu, in addition to funding worth 15 million ringgit ($4.5 million) he had earlier promised for Chinese-language schools.
"It is not because of the by-election, but because we are listening to you," Najib told voters at a campaign rally.
The Sibu seat became vacant after the Front's incumbent died of cancer. Najib's coalition won the last similar special election in peninsular Malaysia last month, bolstering his efforts to regain support for the government.
In the 2008 national elections, the National Front lost more than one-third of the parliamentary seats to the opposition amid complaints of corruption and discrimination against minorities in economic policies.