State polls to determine fate of Malaysia PM, reforms

KUALA LUMPUR Sat Mar 19, 2011 4:53pm IST

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to Reuters during an interview in Melbourne March 4, 2011. REUTERS/Mick Tsikas

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak speaks to Reuters during an interview in Melbourne March 4, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Mick Tsikas

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KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysia's Sarawak state legislature will be dissolved on Monday, paving the way for possible polls in April that could trigger an early general election.

The vote in the sprawling, resource-rich state of Sarawak on Borneo island is seen as a barometer of the strength of Prime Minister Najib Razak's government, and is expected to influence the timing and outcome of a general election which could be held this year.

A strong win for Najib's coalition could trigger an early general election and give the prime minister a mandate to push through key economic changes while a poor performance would throw in doubt the coalition's future and the fate of promised market-friendly reforms.

Sarawak has to hold state polls within 60 days of the legislature's dissolution and many expect the vote to be in April.

"I have met the governor of Sarawak on the dissolution of the state council, and the order to dissolve the state council will be done on March 21, with a copy to be given to the Election Commission," chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud told reporters in Sarawak on Saturday.

Sarawak is a stronghold of the ruling coalition, but its popularity has been eroded by grumbling about poverty and its long-serving chief minister Taib. It has reserves of timber, palm oil and liquefied natural gas but ranks among Malaysia's poorest states.

In a recent interview with Reuters, Najib said a good showing in Sarawak would help assess the public mood and perhaps provide a pointer to calling an early general election.

A general election is not due until 2013 but many expect it to be held late this year after economic growth accelerated to a 10-year high of 7.2 percent in 2010 on the back of strong commodity prices.

"The ruling coalition still looks strong heading into the next general election but the biggest question is Sarawak and how they will fare," political analyst Ong Kian Ming said before the legislature's dissolution was announced.

Najib took office in 2009 pledging economic reforms that were initially hailed by investors but his record of delivery has been mixed.

Wary of upsetting voters, Najib softened his stance on some reforms including the overhaul of a controversial affirmative action policy favouring the country's majority ethnic Malays and twice postponed the implementation of a Goods and Services Tax.

Analysts say that Najib may be willing to initiate these changes if he can secure a strong mandate at the next general election, and the Sarawak poll result will provide an indication of whether he is able to do so.

The ruling coalition has 62 of the 71 seats in the state legislature.Few analysts expect the opposition to capitalise on voter unhappiness towards Taib, who has ruled for almost 30 years, to increase its tally in the state legislature from eight seats.

But the ruling coalition could lose its two-thirds majority control in the legislature, which would raise political temperatures in the state.

(Addtional reporting by Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Liau Y-Sing)

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