KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's deputy prime minister Najib Razak Tuesday said the ruling party's negative image and the perception that its leaders were unfriendly caused its defeat in a key by-election last week.
Najib, deputy president of the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), said the party which had ruled Malaysia for more than half a century had to change its culture and image to win back political support.
"The people gauge UMNO from their relationship with UMNO leaders at all levels," he was quoted as saying by the official Bernama news agency.
Malaysia's opposition Saturday snatched a parliamentary seat from the beleaguered coalition government, in a by-election seen as a test of the nation's political mood.
The opposition alliance said the victory in northeastern Terengganu state was a huge boost to its campaign to seize power after it won a third of parliamentary seats and five states in landmark general elections last year.
The opposition said its victory reflected a loss of confidence of majority Malay voters towards UMNO.
The official tally showed that the conservative Islamic PAS party won the seat in the state capital Kuala Terengganu with a majority of 2,631, claiming 32,883 votes against 30,252 for the government which last won the seat with a slim majority.
Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert at the US-based Johns Hopkins University, who observed the by-election, had said the "decisive" victory spelt trouble for the government as it prepares for a leadership transition.
Najib personally headed the government's campaign in Kuala Terengganu, as well as another failed by-election last year, which saw former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim returned to parliament after a decade-long absence.
Najib is due this March to replace Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was a casualty of the March 2008 general elections that produced the worst results in UMNO's history.