By John Burton in Singapore
Published: March 21 2008 10:51 | Last updated: March 21 2008 10:51
A ruling party grandee has launched a challenge to Abdullah Badawi’s leadership of the United Malays National Organisation after the party’s worst election setback in 50 years.
The move by Razaleigh Hamzah to confront Mr Abdullah, Malaysian prime minister, could trigger a split in UMNO, which leads the National Front coalition government, and is likely to be supported by Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Abdullah’s long-serving predecessor.
Reports that some National Front members of parliament might defect to the opposition, headed by Anwar Ibrahim, are adding to Mr Abdullah's troubles as he fights to survive in power.
Mr Razaleigh, a former finance minister and royal prince, is seen as an elder statesman in times of crisis. Viewed as a reformer, he nearly toppled Dr Mahathir as prime minister in 1987 in a party revolt that was supported by Mr Abdullah.
Now the tables have turned, with Dr Mahathir likely to join Mr Razaleigh to oust Mr Abdullah, according to a Razaleigh aide. The former prime minister and his son, an Umno youth leader, have already demanded the prime minister's resignation.
Mr Razaleigh last week called for a special Umno meeting in May to review the poll results, which could led to a showdown with the prime minister. Mr Razaleigh intends to challenge Mr Abdullah’s re-election as party chief in a vote scheduled for August, but will require support from at least 30 per cent of Umno local leaders to be nominated.
Analysts suggest that Mr Razaleigh's move might lead others to challenge Mr Abdullah, including Najib Razak, deputy prime minister. There is talk of a Najib-Razaleigh unity government to avoid a split in the ranks of the faction-ridden party.
Mr Abdullah last week announced a big cabinet shake-up that included appointment of several reformers. But the new cabinet displeased old guard politicians who failed to gain posts and it also did not give many new seats to Borneo-based National Front parties. The Borneo parties strongly dominated the vote in their states, giving them proportionally greater heft in the coalition’s parliamentary caucus after other National Front incumbents lost their seats.
At least one government MP from Borneo is believed to have switched his allegiance to the opposition, raising the prospect of more defections. Mr Anwar says that if enough do so, it could bring down the Abdullah government, which has only a 29-seat majority in the 222-member parliament.
Mr Abdullah has alleged that Mr Anwar is trying to "buy out" government MPs from Borneo. But an Anwar aide denied bribes are being offered, saying the independent-minded Borneo parties have grown dissatisfied with National Front rule.