10 March, 2008

Voters Go Secular, Snub Ruling Coalition

Malaysia's ruling National Front coalition has suffered its biggest setback in five decades of unbroken power, losing five state governments and the two-thirds majority it enjoyed in national parliament.

The big gainer in Saturday's general elections was a three-party ‘secular’ opposition led by reformist leader Anwar Ibrahim whose appeal has risen among voters frustrated by uninspiring leadership, failure to curb rampant corruption and rising ethnic and religious tensions.

In an encouraging sign of political maturity there was no outward display of racial tension or clashes as was the case when the pro-Muslim-Malay ruling coalition suffered reverses in 1969, leading to race riots.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, has been sworn in for a second five-year term, rejecting calls to resign after the ruling coalition's worst-ever election performance.

"I pledge to carry out my duties honestly and with all my abilities," he said, reading out the oath on Monday as he was sworn in by Malaysia's king.

"I pledge to protect and uphold the constitution."

Although he may form a new federal government with a simple majority, the defeat is personally humiliating for Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, already under pressure to quit and hand over the reins to his deputy Najib Razak.

Dr Mahathir — who led the ruling United National Malays Organisation (Umno), which helms the Barisan Nasional (BN), for 22 years before stepping down in 2003,said yesterday his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi had "destroyed" the ruling coalition after disastrous weekend election results.

"I am sorry, but I apparently made the wrong choice," he said of his decision to select Mr Abdullah to succeed him then.

Renewing his calls for Abdullah to step down as Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir said: "He has destroyed Umno, destroyed the BN ... he is responsible for this."
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"He should accept 100 per cent responsibility … He needs to consider stepping down," he said.
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Mr Mahathir has previously said he never intended for Mr Abdullah to serve more than one term, and that he should have opted instead for influential Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, now the leader-in-waiting.
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On the BN's worst showing since Malaysia became independent in 1957, Dr Mahathir said: "The people must have been very angry. All the races — Chinese, Malays and Indians."
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"The problem is we (the government) have become so arrogant. We suppress any opinion that we do not like and begin to believe in our own reports, which are not actually consistent with what is happening in the country."
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Abdullah was Dr Mahathir's hand-picked successor when he stepped down. But after the new leader dumped several of his pet projects, Dr Mahathir began launching accusations of economic mismanagement, nepotism and corruption.

But Abdullah told supporters he would not quit.

"Why should I step down?" he told a cheering crowd outside his home late Sunday. "Our party has won. I do not fear anyone except Allah. I will stay on, I will not give up.

"We have to continue our struggle, our agenda is far from over. We want our country to be progressive and successful and for you, the people, to be happy," he added

Abdullah may have made his biggest political blunder by calling early elections that only exposed public anger over simmering racial tensions and his perceived missteps.

"He misread the signs. A lot of people were voting against Badawi," said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer and political commentator. "He became the face of the mismanagement of the country. People were beginning to really, really dislike him despite his affable demeanor."

Abdullah ignored Malaysia's widening poverty gap and increasing cost of living. He made his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin one of his advisers. And when the southern state of Johor was struggling after floods in late 2006, Abdullah was in Perth to inaugurate his brother's curry restaurant.

Some even criticized him for remarrying less than two years after his first wife died of cancer and then engaging in public displays of affection.

"At a time when the country is crumbling around us we have to watch his lovey-dovey going-ons with his wife," said Malik. "People don't want to see a lovable teddy bear. They want a tough leader."

In Kota Alam Shah, this was the moment that supporters of Manoharan Malayalam had been waiting for, the older ones said, for 40 years, and they could feel the tidal wave coming.

Mr Manoharan had been forced to watch his entire campaign from an internal security cell — detained without charge since December for organising an unprecedented rally calling for an end to discrimination against ethnic Indians. Many of the supporters who brought him victory in Kota Alam Shah, where 22 per cent of the population are Indians, used to be staunch supporters of the BN.

“We are suppressed, marginalised, and barred from education — you can name any field and Indians in this country are denied it,” said V. K. Vembarasan, a campaigner for Mr Manoharan. “This election is us showing the Government that we want to end its corruption, its misspending and its mismanagement of the economy.”

Today, as the BN and the rest of Malaysia awake to a completely changed political landscape, the demands for Mr Manoharan’s release will be hard to resist. “The tsunami has spoken,” said Mr Vembarasan.

Undeniably, the 12th General Elections will be much talked about for
quite a while. Five state assemblies are under the DAP-PAS-PKR
coalition while the Federal Territory is now an ocean of DAP-PAS-PKR
with two BN areas in Setiawangsa and Putrajaya, to me this is the
sixth win for the non-BN parties. And with two-thirds majority denied
to the BN, we hope Parliament will finally function as the People's
Parliament and checks and balances will ensure

For us, we are excited because the changes brought about by the people
through their votes mean that we have an avenue to demand for

- fair and transparent decision making
- initiatives to do away with unjust laws and policies
- greater spaces for public participation
- more freedom of expression and rights to information.

After stunning electoral gains that took them completely by surprise, Malaysia's opposition now faces the daunting task of running five states and a third of the national parliament.

The trio of diverse parties, which had formed a loose alliance to confront the Barisan Nasional coalition, had never dreamed of bagging such rich prizes, including the two wealthiest states Selangor and Penang - home to high-brand foreign companies such as Sony and Intel.

Now PKR, party of opposition figurehead Anwar Ibrahim, as well as the Islamic party PAS and the Chinese-dominated DAP, must form workable coalitions to govern.


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