Saturday, March 29, 2008

Knives out for Malaysia's Abdullah

By Anil Netto
Asia Times online.

PENANG - Malaysia's politics is still in flux after this month's watershed general election in which opposition parties made their sharpest inroads into the government since the country gained independence in 1957. And the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, comprised of 13 component parties, is still struggling to come to terms with the implications of the setback.

Although BN parties won 140 of Parliament's 222 seats, it lost five states to the opposition, including three of the wealthiest and economically important ones in the federation. Now the ruling coalition is being unnerved by talk of possible defections of its parliamentarians to opposition ranks, which now has 82 seats.

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who predicted the BN would garner a two-thirds majority at the polls, looks considerably
weaker inside his once dominant United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party. He has since the polls endured public calls for his resignation from Mukhriz Mahathir, the son of Abdullah's predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad. The elder Mahathir had made it clear earlier that he thought Abdullah fit to be a one-term premier, paving the way for his deputy, Najib Razak, to take over.

Moreover, Abdullah's post-election decision to trim the size of the cabinet and reshuffle its ranks did not please several influential UMNO factions, including those in Sabah and Sarawak, which contributed 54 parliamentary seats, or 39% of the BN's total of 140. They reportedly are peeved that they are not more strongly represented in the new cabinet.

In the meantime, there is also mounting speculation that Mahathir's former archrival, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, a former finance minister, could mount a challenge against Abdullah in intra-party elections for UMNO's leadership, which are due in December. Abdullah routinely swept the last intra-party leadership elections.

Political events could flow thick and fast in the coming months. Opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim's ban from holding political office expires next month, and his every movement is already being closely watched. There is increasing speculation that one of his People's Justice Party members could step down and force a by-election, which would allow Anwar to enter Parliament as opposition leader, as his party holds the most seats in the opposition.

He is already being referred to as the "prime minister-in-waiting" by his colleagues in the other two parties in the opposition alliance, namely the Democratic Action Party and the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, commonly known as Pas.

Parliament reopens in May and first on the agenda could be a no-confidence motion against Abdullah. If such a motion is raised, it is still likely that the embattled premier would survive, as the opposition alliance, at least for now, does not have the numbers to oust him.

There is also speculation that Razaleigh could move to force an UMNO extraordinary general meeting, which some suggest could be used to amend nomination rules and make it easier for a challenger to contest the party presidency. UMNO's general assembly has been pushed back to December, still earlier than the 2009 date for which several party officials have lobbied. The reasons for the delay are obvious: factionalism is taking grip of the party and threatens to blow into full-blown schisms in the wake of the party's lackluster election performance.

Heightened vulnerability
Abdullah already seems more vulnerable, particularly after he was forced to back down to the sultans of two states - Perlis and Trengganu - who refused to approve his choice of chief minister. Many expect Razaleigh to make a move to challenge Abdullah for the presidency of UMNO in December.

Beneath the surface, it is likely there will be major realignments within the party. Abdullah's arch-critic, Mahathir, has thrown his support behind Razaleigh's call to hold an emergency general meeting (EGM). "I fully support Tengku Razaleigh's idea to hold the EGM, but about choosing the president, it should come later. The issue is UMNO, not the president," said Mahathir, according to press reports.

He had earlier proposed that Abdullah take responsibility for the ruling coalition's electoral setback and step down. It is no secret that the former premier would prefer deputy prime minister Najib Razak to take the party's reins. However, many political analysts believe Najib carries too much political baggage and could prove to be a divisive choice to succeed Abdullah.

For his part, Razaleigh has until now waited patiently in the wings - and some are already speculating that a Razaleigh-Mahathir-Najib alliance of convenience is coalescing against Abdullah in the runup to UMNO's December elections. Not everyone, however, fancies the idea of any of those three taking over UMNO, even those who are critical of the present administration.

"As much as I have big problems with Badawi, I still prefer him to anyone associated with or having the backing of Mahathir," said Wong Kok Keong, a Malaysian media communications lecturer. "I think [Abdullah] is [relatively more] democratic at heart - unlike Mahathir."

"I do hope Badawi will find a way to do the tough act of instituting reforms as he has till December, when he might be forced out," he added. "At least then he can say he really tried to do something for the country instead of [just] for UMNO and the BN."
To be sure, it will be tough for the weakened Abdullah to follow through on judicial reforms and promoting better governance. Already many of Abdullah's mega-projects, under his various regional economic corridor projects, are in doubt following the opposition capture of five state governments, including three of the most developed states on the western coast - Penang, Perak and Selangor.

By losing access to these industrialized states, UMNO's ability to dish out patronage to cronies and allies could diminish. With people like his influential son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, who has been widely blamed for Abdullah's loss in popularity, still lurking behind the scenes, some argue there's little scope for Abdullah to win back lost confidence.

The prime minister has already appointed respected corporate lawyer Zaid Ibrahim to his new cabinet to implement judicial reforms. One Kuala Lumpur-based analyst told Asia Times Online he believed the appointment was aimed at check-mating Mahathir, who was instrumental in undermining the independence of the judiciary after 1988, when the Lord President and five other Supreme Court judges were suspended.

In the meantime, Abdullah will have to be on guard on all fronts, from potential challengers within the ranks of his party to the Anwar-led opposition alliance, who are poised to lure defections from disillusioned BN parliamentarians - especially those from Sabah and Sarawak - and seize control of federal power. Abdullah faces a rough ride in the months ahead and few now are wagering that he will last the distance.