(New throughout, adds Anwar and political analysts comments,
PVS Kuala Lumpur)
By Razak Ahmad and David Chance
IPOH, Malaysia Feb 8 Malaysia's opposition
leader Anwar Ibrahim faced calls to quit on Sunday after losing
control of a key state to the ruling party when four of his
state legislators defected.
Last week the National Front government, in power in
Malaysia for 51 years, seized control of Perak, one of five
opposition-held states, a move that analysts said would shore up
the credibility of incoming premier Najib Razak.
The defections came after Anwar tried to strengthen the
majority of his opposition People's Alliance in Perak by winning
over legislators from the main United Malays National
Organisation (UMNO) party in the poor and disadvantaged state.
Two of the People's Alliance state legislators who switched
sides are in court on corruption charges, something that raises
questions over whether Najib's promises to reform UMNO and deal
with its history of graft will be carried out.
"It's time Pakatan (the People's Alliance) got itself
another leader," said Karpal Singh who is Chairman of the
Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of three parties in Anwar's
People's Alliance coalition.
A defiant Anwar, who leads a three-party opposition
embracing Islamists, reformers and the DAP, told 5,000 cheering
supporters in Perak that his coalition had not asked him to step
aside and vowed to carry on governing the state.
He will also mount a legal challenge to the shift in power.
"Our fate is not decided by people who can be bought over
and threatened but is decided by the people," the 61-year old
former deputy prime minister said on Sunday.
Malaysia's predictable political scene has been thrown into
disarray by the opposition's success in general elections in
March last year when it won control of five of 13 states and
deprived the government of a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was forced to say he
would step down in March and the opposition has since scored two
big by-election wins, including one where Anwar was returned to
parliament for the first time in 10 years.
Abdullah will be replaced after March elections in UMNO, the
main party in the National Front coalition, by Deputy Prime
Minister Najib Razak who orchestrated the defections in Perak.
Najib is the son of Malaysia's second prime minister and is
viewed as a politician who will seek to energise the majority
Malay population who represent UMNO's core supporters.
As well as battling Anwar and seeking to secure his position
in UMNO polls in March, Najib is designing a fiscal package to
help Malaysia counter the global economic slowdown which
threatens the first recession in Malaysia for 8 years.
"Perak marks the start of a long and intense battle ahead,
with the opposition going hard on the issue of the coup to build
up anti-National Front sentiments nationwide," said Northern
University of Malaysia political analyst Mohamed Mustafa Ishak.
UMNO wants to represent the near 60 percent of Malaysians
who are ethnic Malay but it needs to work in a coalition with
ethnic Chinese and Indian parties to govern this country of 27
Najib's power-play in Perak could see him attempt similar
feats in other opposition-ruled states and looks set to ratchet
up racial tensions as he seeks to appeal to the Malay majority.
"Implicitly and explicitly, the use of race is a central
element of the Perak change in government," said Bridget Welsh,
a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
Divisions within the opposition will also be hard to fix
after Najib's skilful handling of the defections, Welsh said.
"PKR (the People's Alliance) has been damaged since it shows
how fickle some of its members are and the inability of Anwar
Ibrahim to keep the party members together," she said.
(Editing by Louise Ireland)