Thursday, March 27, 2008

Malaysia's ruling party debates problems over internal elections, spat with king

associated press.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Malaysia's ruling party considered Thursday whether to postpone internal balloting due this year — a move that could spare the prime minister from a leadership challenge following surprise electoral losses.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi chaired a meeting of the United Malays National Organization's policy-making council to determine whether party elections due in August should be delayed until next year because of current political turbulence. The party is scheduled to hold its annual congress in August, when Abdullah is supposed to seek re-election as UMNO president and other top posts will also be contested. But party laws allow the elections to be postponed until June 2009.

UMNO is the main party in the National Front governing coalition, which held onto power in March 8 general elections but lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. It also lost control of five state legislatures — the coalition's worst results in 51 years in power.

Abdullah has dismissed calls by some UMNO members for his resignation, saying he still commands enough support. His critics include Razaleigh Hamzah, an ex-finance minister who hopes to run for UMNO's presidency. The party president traditionally becomes the prime minister.

Abdullah's other dilemma is a high-profile dispute with Malaysia's constitutional monarch, Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin.

Last week, the king overruled Abdullah's nominee for chief minister of the oil-rich northeastern state of Terengganu and appointed another UMNO lawmaker instead. The king is also the titular head of Terengganu.

UMNO has said the king's move was unconstitutional because state lawmakers supported Abdullah's choice, Idris Jusoh, whom the king dislikes intensely. Party leaders have threatened to expel the king's appointee, Ahmad Said, from UMNO and oust him from the legislature with a no-confidence vote. But speculation has mounted that UMNO will back down after Abdullah held talks with the king on Wednesday.

The UMNO meeting is also expected to discuss Cabinet vacancies after three deputy ministers appointed by Abdullah last week rejected their posts. Two said they had been in their positions too long and had been hoping to become full ministers. Deputy Environment Minister Ghapur Salleh told the national Bernama news agency Thursday that he too was refusing his post to avoid being "tied down with the duties." He said he would not leave the ruling coalition amid fears that the opposition is luring lawmakers to defect.