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Signs of trouble in Malaysia’s vote

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Prime Minister Najib Razak appeared before the media on Monday to acknowledge that his coalition had won general elections for the 13th time in a row, but he sounded more somber than victorious.

The National Front coalition’s victory in Sunday’s parliamentary elections despite losing the popular vote has not only exposed the entrenched racial divide in the country but also a new schism — between the rural poor who preferred the status quo and the urban middle-class who wanted change.

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Healing the divisions will be a big challenge for Najib, who took the oath of office Monday to begin his second five-year term after surviving the fiercest challenge to the National Front’s 56-year rule. If left untended, the racial and social divisions could undermine the stability of Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

The National Front won 133 seats in the 222-member Parliament — down a fraction from the 135 it held before the elections. The opposition People’s Alliance coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim won 89 seats. But a deeper look at the numbers reveals:

 The National Front polled 5.24 million votes to the opposition’s 5.62 million votes, according to the Election Commission.

  The Front banked heavily on three states with rural populations where many people from indigenous groups and the ethnic Malay majority are beholden to the government for handouts. The three states alone accounted for more than half of the 133 seats won.

  People in many urban areas — especially Chinese who are Malaysia’s second-largest ethnic group — voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, reflecting the huge disenchantment with the government’s affirmative action policies.

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