By Rozanna Latiff and Yuddy Cahya Budiman
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) -Malaysia’s ruling coalition retained control of three states in regional polls on Saturday, though official results showed a conservative opposition gaining in popularity in a challenge for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
The election in six Malaysian states – Selangor, Penang, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Terengganu and Kedah – will not directly impact Anwar’s two-thirds majority in parliament, but was widely seen as a referendum on his nine-month-old coalition government.
Data from the Election Commission showed Anwar’s progressive, multi-ethnic alliance had been re-elected in three of the states it had held prior to Saturday’s vote – including Malaysia’s wealthiest state, Selangor, which surrounds the capital of Kuala Lumpur.
Perikatan Nasional, the opposition bloc led by former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and backed by a conservative Islamist party, also held the three states under its control while building on inroads it had made among the country’s majority ethnic-Malay Muslims.
Responding to the results, Anwar told reporters the ruling coalition would “continue working hard to serve the people in line with our desire to build Malaysia”.
Perikatan has sought to portray itself as clean of corruption, and has strongly criticised Anwar for forming an alliance with his coalition’s former rival, the graft-tainted United Malays National Organisation, in order to gain a majority in parliament.
Opinion surveys conducted ahead of Saturday’s polling had also shown strong concerns among voters over economic issues such as rising prices, slowing growth, and the weakening ringgit currency.
Asyraf Zainal Ludin, a 28-year-old Malay voter in the Selangor district of Selayang, said he hoped initiatives announced by Anwar’s government would revive the economy.
“Hopefully whoever wins can make changes to this country, especially in Selayang,” he told Reuters outside a polling station.
Since coming to power, Anwar has focused on introducing economic and institutional reforms, including reducing subsidies for the wealthy, easing listing rules for companies, and abolishing the mandatory death penalty.
Critics, however, have raised concerns over increasing government scrutiny on online content and growing intolerance against the country’s LGBTQ+ community. Anwar has said LGBTQ+ rights will not be recognised by his administration.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff and Yuddy Cahya BudimanAdditional reporting by Hasnoor HussainEditing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Helen Popper)