Friday, March 07, 2008

Malaysia premier's future hazy

The New York Times

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Public protests are frowned on by Malaysia's mildly authoritarian government and often broken up by the riot police. So when a group of opposition party members and activists wanted to send a message to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi earlier this year, they chose a softer and safer alternative — delivering a pillow to his office.

"He has a reputation for liking to sleep," said Rahmat Haron, a poet and self-styled government critic. Rahmat helped lead the small delegation, which made it as far as the security checkpoint. "He sleeps in Cabinet meetings, he sleeps in Parliament," he added. "So we thought, why not make him more comfortable?"

As Malaysia prepares for general elections on Saturday, there is widespread agreement here that the coalition that has governed the country in one form or another since independence in 1957 will win enough votes to stay in power. But the fate of the prime minister, whose popularity has fallen in recent months, is less certain.

Abdullah is being portrayed both by the opposition and by some high-profile members of his own party, the United Malays National Organization, as sluggish and listless.

On Wednesday, Mahathir bin Mohamad, who preceded Abdullah as prime minister and is from the same party, reiterated his regret for having chosen him as his successor and called for Malaysians to elect a strong opposition — a stunning reversal for a man who while in office sent opposition politicians to jail.

Abdullah, who came to power in 2003 promising sweeping reforms and crackdowns on corruption, has struggled to persuade voters that he can deliver, said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the Merdeka Center, a polling agency.

"He looks a bit out of touch," Ibrahim said. At a time of rising crime, higher food prices and ethnic tensions, he added, "He's basically telling people that there are no problems."

Abdullah led the National Front coalition to a landslide victory in 2004, winning more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament. But his administration has been beset by scandals and controversies that have challenged the prime minister's now widely mocked nickname, Mr. Clean.

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