By Vijay Joshi
Malaysia's prime minister rejected calls for him to resign on Friday, claiming he won a "strong" mandate in elections that gave the opposition its biggest gains in the country's history.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi acknowledged support for his National Front coalition had plunged in Saturday's elections - from 91 per cent of the parliamentary seats to 63 per cent - or 140 seats in the 222-member chamber.
Still, the ruling coalition managed to get a "strong majority," just eight short of two-thirds of the seats, Abdullah said in an interview on state television.
"This is still a mandate given to me. I will not run away from my responsibility to carry out the wishes of the people," he said.
Abdullah's late-night comments came hours after boisterous ruling party activists demonstrated in two states that fell to the opposition before dispersing when police arrived.
Such partisan struggles are almost unheard of in the Southeast Asian nation, whose government - in power since 1957 - insists political stability is necessary to attract foreign investment and keep racial peace between majority Malays and ethnic minority Chinese and Indians.
The sense of instability intensified on Thursday after the son of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad asked Abdullah to resign to take responsibility for the election debacle.
Besides the decline in parliament, the National Front also lost elections for legislatures in an unprecedented five of Malaysia's 13 states.
The results "sent a sufficiently clear message regarding the people's rejection of (you) as the country's leader," Mukhriz Mahathir, a government lawmaker, said in a letter sent to Abdullah on Thursday. It was made public on the same day.
Abdullah said he has the full backing of members of his ruling party, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which forms the foundation of the National Front, and will let UMNO youth take action against Mukhriz.
However, he said he accepted that the vote signalled people were dissatisfied and wanted change.
"Whatever I can do I will do. I understand the people's wishes. Maybe there are weaknesses in our implementation, so that will be corrected," Abdullah said.
But it was clear the unexpected election results were causing tensions, especially in places won by the opposition - including the country's wealthiest states of Penang and Selangor.
About 300 UMNO members protested outside the administrative headquarters of the state government in the Chinese-majority Penang state in the first sign of partisan tensions after the elections.
Chanting "Long Live Malays," they demanded that the newly installed Penang government, now controlled by the Chinese-dominated opposition Democratic Action Party, retain a decades-old affirmative action program for the majority Malays. They dispersed when police arrived after an hour.
Penang's new chief minister, Guan Eng Lim, announced on Monday he planned to do away with the affirmative action New Economic Policy, saying it "breeds cronyism, corruption and systemic inefficiency."
The NEP gives privileges to Malays in jobs, education, business and religion. Even some Malay critics say it has been misused to benefit a well-connected Malay elite.
In Selangor state, about 60 UMNO members demonstrated near the Selangor chief minister's office, demanding the state government not meddle with the NEP. They dispersed after 20 minutes after seeing police vehicles.
Abdullah accused the opposition of instigating the Malays.
"They must be responsible when making comments. Don't make comments just to be popular with a certain race. They must be cautious and not undermine the good racial relations in the country," he said.
"Don't let any race feel that they are being isolated and not given attention. Don't be hasty in changing policies ... think carefully. Being a ruling government is different than being an opposition party," he said.
The government has tried to nurture harmony among the three races since ethnic riots in 1969 that killed more than 200 people. But ethnic Chinese and Indians have voiced growing fears in recent years that they receive second-class treatment. The minority disenchantment was a major reason for the National Front's losses.
Abdullah said the minorities were unhappy with the implementation of development plans.
"I will give attention to this ... I will focus on the implementation and rectify the weaknesses to ensure fair distribution for all races and to ensure that it goes smoothly," he said.Brought to you by AP (http://portmacquarie.yourguide.com.au
- Beritadarigunung: When Abdullah says he understand people's dissatisfaction and he will try to do something about it, i know it is a bit too late. He was reminded years ago. Tun Dr Mahathir had put it bluntly much earlier, but he was bulldozed by Abdullah and his men and women. But can Abdullah react positively now?