15 February, 2008

Anwar, Malaysian Opposition, Aim to Erode Majority

Three Malaysian opposition parties plan to deny the ruling coalition a two-thirds majority in a bid to loosen the government's five-decade grip on power when the country holds elections scheduled for March 8.

``It will be a major, major battle ahead,'' Anwar Ibrahim, 60, a former deputy prime minister now aligned with the opposition, said at a press conference in Hong Kong yesterday.

The parties plan to take on Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's Barisan Nasional coalition by fielding a single candidate in most constituencies and to highlight Malaysia's crime rate, rising consumer prices, and government corruption.

``We'll be harping on these issues every single day,'' said Tony Pua, economic adviser to the Democratic Action Party, the largest opposition group in parliament. ``It shows a clear failure of the government.''

Denying Abdullah's coalition a two-thirds majority would be a historic shift in Malaysia politics, said Ooi Kee Beng, an analyst at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

``If you want to amend anything in the constitution, you need two-thirds support from parliament, so that has become sort of a benchmark,'' said Ooi. ``More voices in parliament will be healthy for democracy. But the opposition will never come close to having power.''

Election Date

Malaysia's election commission today set March 8 for the elections. Abdullah, 68, who dissolved parliament yesterday, led his coalition to its biggest parliamentary victory in 2004. The opposition won less than 10 percent of the parliamentary seats.

Candidates will be nominated on Feb. 24, Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said at a press conference in Putrajaya, outside Kuala Lumpur, today.

The DAP, the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party and the People's Justice Party, which together won 19 of 219 parliamentary seats in 2004, plan to coordinate campaigns to ensure they don't take votes from each other. Anwar said yesterday the parties have agreed on a single candidate for 90 percent of the country's constituencies. The People's Justice Party is advised by Anwar and led by his wife.

Coordination among the parties is not yet complete, Anwar said. His party will field around 70 candidates, and the other two parties will run around 60 candidates each.

Winning a third of the parliament is just the start, said Din Merican, program director of the People's Justice Party.

``We have to project our image as an alternative government of the future,'' he said. ``We cannot continue to be a party of dissidents.''

Slowing Growth

Abdullah had to call an election before his government cuts gasoline subsidies, pump prices rise and economic growth slows, according to the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, the only opposition group to hold power in one of Malaysia's 13 states, northeast Kelantan.

``They cannot face an election later in the year with the economic crisis happening in Malaysia,'' said Hatta Ramli, treasurer of the party. ``That is why they need a quick, fresh mandate before they raise the price of oil and other goods.''

Inflation in Malaysia accelerated to a 10-month high of 2.4 percent in December on higher food, alcohol and tobacco prices. Last month, Abdullah said the number of criminal cases rose 13 percent in 2007 as rioting, intimidation and extortion grew.

The government says Malaysia isn't alone in struggling with inflation. Prices of commodities including crude oil and wheat have soared worldwide, driving up the cost of everyday goods.

`Global Issue'

``The cost of living and increases in prices of goods is a global issue,'' Housing and Local Government Minister Ong Ka Ting, who leads the coalition's Malaysian Chinese Association, told reporters yesterday.

Malaysia's economic growth may weaken in 2008 to 5.4 percent from an estimated 6.1 percent last year amid a global slowdown caused by the U.S. housing recession, according to the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

Anwar, who is coordinating talks between the opposition parties, said there's another reason for Abdullah's early election call: excluding him from contesting. Anwar can't run for public office until five years after he finished a sentence for a 1999 conviction for corruption, a restriction that expires in mid-April.

``Prime Minister Abdullah is getting personal,'' Anwar said in an interview with Bloomberg Television yesterday.

Anwar spent six years in jail for charges he denies, after he was fired by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1998. A sodomy conviction was overturned in 2004.

Abdullah is looking for a fresh mandate to implement the rest of his five-year, 200 billion-ringgit ($62 billion) spending program that runs to 2010. He has rolled out development zone blueprints to attract billions of dollars of investment to every corner of Malaysia.

- By Angus Whitley, Bloomberg

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