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Election for Anwar's seat to test Malaysia opposition support

Wan Azizah, wife of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim waves to photographers as she leaves after her husband's legal case against Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman at the Duta court complex in Kuala Lumpur on February 17, 2015.

[KUALA LUMPUR] Voters in a Malaysian district that's been an opposition stronghold since 1999 head to the polls on Thursday after their representative Anwar Ibrahim was jailed for sodomy.

The election in Permatang Pauh in Penang state is a test of support for Anwar's opposition coalition.

A poor showing for Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail - who is standing for the seat - would risk weakening an already-fractured alliance and suggest voters are looking beyond Prime Minister Najib Razak's introduction of an unpopular goods and services tax.

Four candidates are contesting the seat, including Wan Azizah. Voter turnout may be below 70 per cent and could result in a loss for her, the Malaysian Insider reported Tuesday, citing a private survey commissioned by Anwar's People's Justice Party.

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"It's an election held on a weekday and people who are not living nearby probably won't take the trouble to go back," said Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research in Kuala Lumpur. "It hasn't been a competitive seat in the past. Some people are going to take it for granted that their votes won't make a huge difference."

Ms Wan Azizah's task has been complicated by disputes within the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition over a push by one member, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, to implement Islamic criminal law in a state it controls. Her party's disapproval of the move drew the ire of some PAS leaders, and chiefs from its ulema, or Muslim scholar, faction were absent during the 12-day campaigning period, state news agency Bernama reported.

Polls opened at 8am local time in Permatang Pauh, home to about 72,000 voters. In the 2013 general election there was turnout of about 88.5 per cent, and Anwar won by a margin of 11,721 votes. He garnered about 59 per cent of valid ballots cast.


The turnout this time is projected to be less than 68 per cent, the Malaysian Insider reported, citing People's Justice Party Strategic Director Sim Tze Tzin. There may be 6,000 potential voters currently outside the district and unable to cast a ballot, which would be "worrying," he said.

Anwar was sentenced to five years in prison in February after the country's highest court upheld a conviction for sodomy. Malaysia's monarch in March denied a request by Anwar's family to free the former deputy prime minister, prompting the by-election. He has maintained his innocence and said he is a victim of a political conspiracy.

Ms Wan Azizah, 62, represented Permatang Pauh from 1999 to 2008, while Anwar spent six years in jail on previous convictions for abuse of power and sodomy. Her biggest competitor in Thursday's contest is Suhaimi Sabudin of the United Malays National Organisation, the biggest party in the Barisan Nasional coalition that rules nationally.


The government's implementation last month of a consumption tax of 6 per cent has been used to rally voters in Permatang Pauh away from UMNO. Mr Najib has seen his approval rating slide to around 40 per cent as he undertakes unpopular economic measures to plug a budget gap, and has been publicly criticized by ex-premier Mahathir Mohamad over his stewardship.

"The level of fatigue among voters is quite high, because both BN and the opposition have seen their fair share of internal politics and bickering over the last year and a half," said Ibrahim of Merdeka Centre, who predicts Wan Azizah will retain the seat for her party in the district Anwar was born in 67 years ago. "There isn't a high degree of enthusiasm in Permatang Pauh."