Ong Tee Keat seco nd from right - with his dejected supporters.

Ong Tee Keat seco nd from right - with his dejected supporters.

An ethnic Chinese party in Malaysia’s government ousted its president in a closely watched vote on Saturday, throwing the ruling coalition into further turmoil after last year’s electoral setback.

The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the second largest party in the National Front coalition, voted against party president Ong Tee Keat, in a confidence vote following a bitter leadership dispute in the party.

The confidence vote was called after Ong in August sacked 65-year-old Chua Soi Lek as his deputy over a 2007 sex scandal.

Chua resigned as health minister in the Cabinet after a video, secretly recorded in a hotel room and showing him having extramarital sex, surfaced two years ago. He was elected MCA deputy president last year.

Chua lost in his bid to be reinstated as the party’s deputy president in Saturday’s vote.

“We respect the decision made by the delegates,” Ong, who is also a minister in Prime Minister Najib Razak’s cabinet, told a news conference after the result.

“We’d said we’re determined to resolve the crisis through this EGM and this is it. We will close the bridge,” said Ong.

Analysts said the surprise outcome will further weaken MCA, still reeling from last year’s electoral defeats.

“Among MCA circles, this is very serious,” said James Chin, political science professor at Monash University in Kuala Lumpur. “Because MCA’s delegates themselves have actually lost faith in the leadership of both Ong and Chua.”

The MCA represents ethnic Chinese voters, who make up more than a quarter of Malaysia’s 27 million people. They are the second-most important ethnic group vote bank after the majority Malays, and remain the most economically dominant community.

Many urban Chinese voters turned against MCA in the 2008 elections, saying it failed to fight discrimination, including long-held policies favouring ethnic Malays.

Najib, who took over the premiership in April, needs to rebuild his multi-racial coalition or risks losing in the next general election, which must be held by 2013.

“If Najib can find another Chinese party to replace MCA, that would be the easiest way. But right now there is no other Chinese party that could replace MCA,” Chin said.