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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 16:41 GMT
Victory's sting-in-the-tail for Mahathir
Mahatir Mohamed and his deputy Dr Mahathir celebrates his resounding victory

By South East Asia correspondent Simon Ingram

Supporters of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad have been celebrating his election victory at his party's headquarters in central Kuala Lumpur.

They cheered and sang late into the night, as well they might. Outwardly they have every reason for jubilation.

Clearly the Barisan Nasional (National Front) is still the party of choice of the people of Malaysia
Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Prime Minister
Results from Monday's parliamentary and state assembly elections showed his ruling National Front coalition had won 148 of the 193 seats in parliament.

It was a better result than it achieved in the 1995 election, and exceeded the two-thirds majority that permits the ruling coalition almost untrammelled legislative power.

"Clearly the Barisan Nasional (National Front) is still the party of choice of the people of Malaysia," declared a beaming Dr Mahathir.

A year or so ago, the veteran leader seemed to have been fatally undermined as the capital was rocked by the worst unrest in decades, triggered by the dismissal of his popular former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Vicious campaign

His victory would seem to have decisively proved his enemies wrong, and demonstrated that even after a period of severe political and economic instability, Malaysians are still willing to put their trust in the country's combative and idiosyncratic leader.

In a short but often vicious campaign, the Front had remorselessly, many would say unfairly, attacked its opponents, warning that a vote for the opposition Alternative Front coalition was a vote for instability, economic decline and, even, the establishment of an Iranian-style Islamic state.

election posters The National Front played on fears of instability
That line of attack - however exaggerated - was particularly effective among the large ethnic Chinese community, where many already had misgivings about the alliance that the predominantly-Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) had formed with the Islamist Pas party.

The DAP did manage to secure an extra parliamentary seat, but saw its leader, Lim Kit Siang, and his deputy both defeated in their individual constituency races, as the Chinese vote swung into line behind the National Front.

Pas, however, has emerged as the big winner from this election, almost quadrupling its presence in parliament to 27 seats, and - perhaps more significantly - seizing control of the provincial assembly in the northern state of Terengganu, to add to its existing stronghold in Kelantan.

Pas makes gains

The party also made significant inroads in other parts of the crucial northern-Malay heartland, underlining the extent of disillusionment in the Malay community with the prime minister, largely because of his handling of the Anwar Ibrahim issue.

But the wave of pro-Anwar and anti-government protests that threatened to sweep Dr Mahathir away 12 months ago did not translate into significant gains by the party that the unrest spawned.

Despite the success of Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, in the constituency where her jailed husband was MP for 16 years, her Keadilan party saw its hopes of becoming a major political force largely dashed.

While its calls for greater democracy and a free judiciary earned it a significant share of the popular vote in Kuala Lumpur and other areas, under Malaysia's first-past-the-post electoral system, that support eventually translated into just five parliamentary seats.

Not that Dr Mahathir's worries are over. He still faces a crucial leadership contest within his own Umno party in the middle of next year, and the loss of Malay support will raise searching questions over the direction that it has taken.

There's speculation that Umno will take on a new pro-Islamist policy emphasis in order to counteract Pas' grassroots appeal.

That possibility - and the increasingly urgent need to find a successor to the 73-year-old prime minister - suggests Malaysia's political uncertainties are far from over.

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See also:
15 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Malaysia's snap election: Special report
29 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Malaysia's day of decision
29 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Malaysian elections
29 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Mahathir appeals to younger generation
10 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Malaysia's strongman Mahathir

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