Malaysia: recount begins after Islamic party narrowly loses by-election

Election officials in a northeastern Malaysia state began to recount votes Wednesday after the Islamic fundamentalist party that governs the region suffered a narrow defeat in a key by-election.

Hanafi Mamat, the candidate for Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's National Front coalition, was initially declared the winner by a 129-vote margin in Tuesday's ballot for the Pengkalan Pasir constituency in Kelantan, Malaysia's only opposition-controlled state.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, which has ruled the state since 1990, disputed the result, although a recount was mandated anyway because the victory margin was below 2 percent of the total 15,273 votes cast.

The election is considered a test of support for the Islamic party's policies, including its ambition to rule Malaysia as an Islamic theocracy under which convicted thieves' hands would be amputated.

Representatives from both parties were observing Wednesday's recount, which was expected to be completed in a few hours, Election Commission official Rizal Ridzuan told The Associated Press.

The ballot was held after the Islamic party's incumbent state assemblyman died last month. Excluding the vacant seat, PAS controls 23 of the 45 seats in Kelantan's state legislature, while the National Front has 21.

If the results stand, PAS would be reduced to a one-seat majority, which will likely spur Abdullah's coalition to call for the dissolution of Kelantan's legislature and fresh polls.

PAS has so far remained noncommittal about the prospect of a snap election, but it fears some of its lawmakers could defect to the National Front alliance.

The National Front, although dominated by Abdullah's Malay Muslim party, includes Chinese and Indian parties and follows secular policies. It has pledged to build a university and help poor villagers if it comes to power in Kelantan, one of Malaysia's least-developed states.

The Islamic party made inroads in the late 1990s, but has since faltered amid growing support for the government's moderate Islamic policies. Some 60 percent of Malaysia's 26 million people are Malay Muslims, while non-Muslim Chinese and Indians comprise most of the rest, AP reports. P.T.

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