Malaysia's ruling coalition wins by-election

Malaysia's ruling coalition on Sunday comfortably won a key by-election in its traditional stronghold, amid speculation of snap polls later this year.

The vote was called in the semi-rural Tenang constituency in southern Johor state after the death of a state assemblyman from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant party in the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The vote pitted the Barisan Nasional's Mohamad Azahar Ibrahim against Normala Sudirman, a rising star within the conservative Islamic Party (PAS).

The Election Commission declared Mohamad Azahar winner after he secured 6,699 votes while Normala obtained 2,992. Mohamad Azahar won with a 3,707 majority. 

Earlier a senior Malaysian opposition politician said Barisan Nasional had won a "comfortable victory" in the by-election which was marred by rain and flash floods.

"The initial results showed that the ruling coalition has secured a comfortable victory," Mahfuz Omar, vice-president PAS, part of the opposition alliance, told AFP.

Analysts have said that a convincing victory would indicate support for Prime Minister Najib Razak remains intact in UMNO's heartland, potentially spurring the ruling coalition to call national polls this year after the opposition made unprecedented gains in elections in 2008.

"It is a critical by-election for UMNO and the Barisan Nasional. It will test their strength in their traditional stronghold," political analyst Khoo Kay Peng told AFP earlier.

"It is a test for UMNO and PAS in the race for Malay leadership," he added, referring to the competition between the two parties to be seen as the voice the Muslim Malays who dominate Malaysia's population.

In the run-up to the poll, Normala caused a stir by declining to shake hands with men, triggering debate across Malaysia's racial and religious divide.

Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, who follow Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism among other religions, complain their rights are being trampled by the imposition of Muslim values on their way of life.

Observant Muslims in Malaysia, both men and woman, sometimes prefer not to shake hands with an unrelated person of the opposite gender, but working politicians generally take a more relaxed view.

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