KUALA LUMPUR: - Malaysia's ruling coalition faces two critical by-elections on April 7, widely seen as a referendum on the leadership of Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak.
The date was set by the Election Commission (EC) yesterday following the recent death of an MP in Perak and the resignation of a state assemblyman in Kedah.
The timing of the polls has drawn much attention, coming around the time of an expected handover of power from Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to Datuk Seri Najib.
It also follows the collapse of the opposition state government in Perak after four assemblymen defected, a move which has led to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coming under fire for the manner with which it wrested power.
'It will be an opportunity for the people to make a judgment. It will definitely be a referendum on Najib's leadership as he was the architect in the illegal power grab,' Mr Lim Kit Siang, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), told news agency Agence France-Presse.
The opposition has also criticised the April date, saying it was biased in favour of Umno, the leading party in the BN, as by then Umno would have held its annual general assembly.
The party pow-wow, which takes place from March 24 to March 28, is a hectic time for Umno members. Party polls will be held then and candidates for the top posts will be too busy canvassing for votes to focus on state by-elections.
Nomination day for the Kedah and Perak elections is on March 29, a day after Mr Najib is slated to take over as Umno president at the end of the general assembly.
'It is just too good to be mere coincidence for the EC to fix a date after Umno elections,' the opposition Parti Keadilan Rakyat's (PKR) chief strategist Saifuddin Nasution told news website Malaysiakini.
He also noted that the by-election in Permatang Pauh last year was timed such that it clashed with the annual assembly of the opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). PAS, like PKR and DAP, is part of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition.
Another point of contention: April 7 falls on a Tuesday. Weekday polls are typically seen as favouring the ruling party as opposition voters who live and work outside their home state are likely to find it too onerous to make a trip back to vote.
'We don't have a problem with the date itself. But we take issue with the fact that the EC doesn't seem to be acting independently,' PKR information chief Tian Chua told The Straits Times.
He also criticised the long delay in holding the polls. April 7 is close to the end of the 60-day deadline for by-elections to be held.
EC chairman Abdul Aziz Mohd Yusof yesterday dismissed the charges.
He explained that the relatively long time lag was to allow all parties to 'cool off' because the situation in Perak was still tense. He also rejected the view that weekend polls would guarantee a greater turnout.
The outcome of the April elections is particularly crucial for Mr Najib as they are seen as tests of his ability to revive the public standing of the coalition.
After its drubbing in the general election last March, the BN has gone on to lose two more by-elections.
And the April date would mean that if recent reports are indeed confirmed, he would be the Prime Minister by then, with present Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi handing over the baton on March 31.
The Perak by-election looks to be an uphill battle for the BN, with voters in a survey released on Thursday giving the thumbs-down to its takeover of the state government.
The opposition, in turn, is banking on the unhappiness on the ground to win the Bukit Gantang seat in Perak.
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