03 June, 2008

Gone are the days, Malaysia’s era of political stability

An excerpt from FT.com

Malaysia’s era of political stability ends

By John Burton in Singapore


Malaysia used to be known for its stable politics and orderly leadership under the long-ruling National Front coalition government. No longer.

“No one knows who will be prime minister by the end of the year. It’s a very fluid situation and changes day by day,” says Raja Petra Kamarudin, editor of Malaysia Today, an influential political website.

Abdullah must face Umno party elections in December when his leadership mandate is up for renewal. Umno members are seething with anger over the government’s loss of its two-thirds parliamentary majority and an unprecedented five of 13 state governments.

Any rival from within Umno must attract the support of at least 30 per cent of local division heads to be nominated for the party leadership. But observers say such an outcome – once unthinkable – is now looking possible.

“Abdullah still remains very vulnerable. Umno will shortly begin holding local division elections for delegates at the party conference and Abdullah’s support appears to be eroding at the grassroots,” says a foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.

If Abdullah becomes convinced that he does not have the numbers to survive, he is expected to set a schedule for handing over power to the deputy prime minister, Najib Razak.

Najib is seen as an Umno old guard politician who favours the government’s preferential treatment of ethnic Malays, a popular cause within Umno. The policy has been criticised by the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities and was a main reason for the government’s electoral setback. But Najib also has weaknesses. He is being blamed for the government’s poor election performance because he was in charge of the campaign. His image has also been harmed by allegations of corruption involving the award of contracts by the defence ministry, which he heads.Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

Anwar says he would welcome Najib as Umno leader since it would give a boost to the opposition at a time when the public mood has become more critical about alleged government corruption. “It’s easier for us to deal with Najib because he is tainted,” Anwar said.

With this in mind, some observers think Najib’s troubles could persuade Umno delegates to support instead Muhyiddin Yassin, the number three Umno official, as the next leader. A moderate from the southern state of Johor, the party’s biggest stronghold,Muyhidden is already favoured as becoming deputy prime minister if Najib succeeds Abdullah.

But Umno calculations in trying to hold on to power by selecting a new leader could be upset if Mr Anwar carries out his threat to topple the government by mid-September by calling for a no-confidence vote. With 82 of the 222 parliamentary seats, the three-party opposition alliance needs to persuade 30 government members of parliament to defect to form a new government.

Political analysts say that Anwar is targeting more than 40 government MPs to defect, which would give him a majority of 22. Most of the defectors would come from Umno’s allies in the National Front coalition from the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, which have long complained about being marginalised by the central government. Anwar claims that he already has enough MPs to bring down the government.

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