13 February, 2008

PM calls snap election

Malaysia's prime minister dissolved Parliament Wednesday, paving the way for general elections that will test his declining popularity amid complaints about inflation, crime and ethnic tensions.

But,I taught Parliament will not be dissolved (to pave the way) for the 12th general election, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Mr Clean had said yesterday.

"No, not tomorrow," he told reporters.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told reporters that the constitutional monarch approved the dissolution of Parliament, paving the way for the national polls. The assemblies in the 12 states and territories will also go to polls.

Elections must be conducted within 60 days after Parliament is dissolved, but typically they are held sooner. Nomination and polling dates would be announced by the Election Commission on Thursday.

Although the National Front coalition government is expected to win the election, continuing its unbroken run in office since independence in 1957, an unexpectedly large decline in support could weaken Abdullah’s authority within the United Malays National Organisation, the dominant party.

Abdullah conceded that his government was unlikely to repeat its landslide performance in the last election in 2004. Some analysts believe he faces a particularly tough challenge this time because of growing discontent among ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over the government’s policy of preferential treatment for the ethnic Malay majority.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi goes into the next election knowing only one thing for sure, that he will win.

The electoral landscape is so favourable to his ruling coalition that his re-election is considered a formality, but Abdullah's own personal support has been sliding fast.

Four years ago, he led the coalition, a group of race-based parties, to a record election victory, promising to tackle corruption and to make government more accountable and open.

He had just taken over power from Mahathir Mohamad, whose 22-year-old administration was dogged by tales of sleaze, and opinion polls gave Abdullah a 90 percent approval rating.

It seemed that Abdullah, despite being Mahathir's hand-picked successor, would blow the cobwebs off Malaysian politics.

A moderate Muslim known as the "Mr Clean" of Mahathir's old cabinet, he seemed just the man to galvanise the nation's divided races and religions -- Muslim Malays, Buddhist Chinese and Hindu Indians -- and rally them to a new cause of reform.

Unfortunately, it did not work out that way.

Four years on, racial tensions have risen, not fallen, and the corruption campaign's biggest catch has turned out to be its first, the 2004 arrest of a former lands minister whose case is still wending its way through the courts.

Worse, anti-government protests drew crowds of more than 10,000 on to the streets of Kuala Lumpur late last year, the biggest since Mahathir faced a popular revolt in the late 1990s.

Instead of bowing to calls from lawyers and human-rights groups to tolerate peaceful rallies, Abdullah's administration used tear gas, water cannon and arrests to break them up.

He also used a controversial internal-security law to arrest five organisers of the biggest protest, by more than 10,000 ethnic Indians, and detain them indefinitely, without charge.

But racial tensions are not Abdullah's only problem on the eve of elections. Rising living costs and popular anger over street crime are also eating away at his popularity.

Abdullah's approval rating recently hit an all-time low of 61 percent, a poor result for a country where the opposition is weak, the press pro-government and the electoral system skewed toward rural voters who back Abdullah's government.

Abdullah will face voters in coming weeks, most likely during the first half of March, after he called for an election on Wednesday.

TESTING TIMES

Born on the island of Penang on Nov. 26, 1939, Abdullah takes pride in his mixed Malay, Arab and Chinese blood. During his upbringing, he went to a Methodist boys' school in the morning and an Islamic school in the afternoon.

His father was a founder member of the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and his grandfather a respected Islamic preacher who called the faithful to prayer.

The young Abdullah grew up in a secure but not wealthy family. As a young boy, he shared a room with his grandfather and often read books by candlelight so as not to disturb him.

Abdullah began his career as a civil servant in 1964 and five years later found himself at the centre of the political stage, after hundreds of people were slaughtered in race riots that broke out between Malays and Chinese following a political rally.

In 1969, he joined the National Operation Council, which was set up with emergency powers after the riots of May that year.

The fear of fresh riots, even after decades of relative harmony, continues to shape his political outlook and is often given as the reason why he came down hard on dissent last year.

Abdullah's opponents, though, believe he has merely shed the clothes of a reformer and partly adopted Mahathir's old political formula -- intolerance of public protest, lip-service to anti-corruption, political patronage and, above all, stability.

Abdullah will win the next election, that much seems certain, but whether he can remain long as the leader of his party, and therefore prime minister, could depend on the margin of victory.


An overview of Malaysia's political history

Abdul Razak expanded the original Alliance coalition of three parties to include others such as the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia

The 12th election in Malaysia's history pits Abdullah's long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition of 14 parties against three main opposition parties, the left-leaning Democratic Action Party, the Islamist party Parti Islam se-Malaysia and former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim's Parti Keadilan.

Here are some key facts about Malaysia's political history:

INDEPENDENCE:

* Malaya, the 11 states in the Malay Peninsula that formed the southern-most tip of mainland Asia, gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1957. It was then a leading producer of commodities such as tin and rubber.

* Led by the Tunku Abdul Rahman, an affable prince from Kedah state, Malaya prospered. It merged with the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah and Singapore to form Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

TURBULENT SIXTIES:

* Politics and a personality clash between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore's then leader, Lee Kuan Yew, saw the island state separate from Malaysia in August 1965.

* Tunku Abdul Rahman's ruling Alliance coalition suffered major setbacks in the May 12, 1969 elections, leading to racial riots a day later.

-- No precise fatality figures have ever been given for the riots between ethnic Malay and Chinese communities, which caused parliament to be suspended for nearly two years as Malaysia was governed by emergency decree.

-- Tunku Abdul Rahman, who once described himself as "the happiest prime minister in the world", resigned a year later, giving way to deputy Abdul Razak Hussein.

COALITION CONSOLIDATES POWER:

* Abdul Razak expanded the original Alliance coalition of three parties to include others such as the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) to contest the 1974 general elections.

* The new-look coalition, known as the Barisan Nasional or National Front, won, and Abdul Razak embarked on an agricultural drive, emphasising oil palm estates.

* Abdul Razak died of leukaemia while still in office in January 1976. His deputy, Hussein Onn, became Malaysia's third prime minister.

* PAS left the expanded coalition as Hussein's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) made inroads into Kelantan, its stronghold state. The National Front trounced PAS in Kelantan in the 1978 elections, but PAS regained control of the state in 1990.

THE RISE OF MAHATHIR:

* Hussein resigned for health reasons in July 1981 and his deputy, Mahathir Mohamad, who was once sacked from UMNO for criticising Tunku Abdul Rahman in his book, "The Malay Dilemma", became prime minister.

* During Mahathir's 22-year term, the longest by a Malaysian prime minister, he modernised the commodities-dependent economy that he inherited with industries ranging from electronics to vehicle manufacturing. He also built extensive infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports and the world's tallest twin towers, the Petronas Twin Towers.

ASIAN CRISIS AND BEYOND:

* The 1997 Asian economic crisis put a damper on break-neck development, but Mahathir's controversial capital controls paid off, and Malaysia made a stronger recovery than some neighbours.

* Mahathir retired on October 31, 2003 in favour of his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Despite poor health he continues to be an outspoken political presence, sniping at his successor.

* Abdullah won the last elections in March 2004 by a landslide. Barisan Nasional took 12 of the country's 13 states, and more than 90 percent of seats in parliament, though with 63.8 percent of the vote.

* In April 2006 he unveiled the Ninth Malaysia Plan, an economic blueprint for 2006-2010.

(Sources: Reuters via Yahoo!)

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