Friday, March 07, 2008

On Election Eve, Hazy Prospects For Malaysia Premier

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. Mr. 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 sharply in recent months, is less certain.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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

“He looks a bit out of touch,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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.

A top aide to the deputy prime minister is on trial, charged with abetting the slaying of his Mongolian mistress, a killing that two police commandos who also served as Mr. Abdullah’s bodyguards are charged with carrying out. And the nation was stunned last year by the release of a videotape of a prominent lawyer apparently brokering judicial appointments with a top judge. The videotape was made before Mr. Abdullah came to power but has led to renewed calls for reforms of the judiciary.

In the face of the repeated criticism that he figuratively and literally sleeps on the job, the prime minister has come across as defensive. “We are not deaf, for we hear what the people say,” Mr. Abdullah said this week, according to the state-run news agency Bernama. “We are not asleep, for we are working.”

If the governing coalition’s majority is narrowed significantly, Mr. Abdullah’s position would be weakened inside his party, and he could face pressure to step down at a party conference scheduled for later this year, analysts say.

From the vantage point of central Kuala Lumpur, the country appears to be booming. The sounds and sights of jackhammers, cranes and backhoes across the city are testament to the continued transformation of what was once a sleepy backwater into a thriving, cosmopolitan Southeast Asian capital.

But many Malaysians say they are worried about the country’s economic prospects.

In a survey of 1,026 registered voters released by the Merdeka Center in January, only 19 percent of ethnic Chinese, who form the cornerstone of the country’s business community, said they expected the economy to improve in the coming year.

Price increases for food and fuel, both of which are subsidized here, are major campaign issues. Voters surveyed listed inflation, inequality, ethnic relations and a rise in crime as their top concerns.

Income distribution in Malaysia is the least equal of all Asian countries but Papua New Guinea, according to United Nations statistics.

“Bread and butter issues have been essential in all the constituencies,” said Bridget Welsh, a specialist in Malaysian politics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Analysts expect the governing coalition to lose ground in several states, including Penang and Terengganu. But the coalition has the formidable advantage of five decades of incumbency. The leading newspapers in Malaysia are owned or linked to parties in the coalition and are widely criticized as slavishly pro-government during election campaigns.

The group Human Rights Watch said in a statement this week that irregularities in the electoral rolls and curbs on media freedom would make the election “grossly unfair.”

This week, Malaysia’s election commission unexpectedly rescinded a decision to use indelible ink on voters’ fingers to prevent people from using identity cards of deceased voters and casting votes several times. Opposition parties have long complained of “phantom” voters — dead people who have never been struck from the election rolls.

The election commission says that 8,666 registered voters on the election rolls are more than 100 years old, including two people who are 128, which seems unlikely in a country where life expectancy is 72.

Ms. Welsh said the monitoring of vote counting was made more difficult after a ruling by the election commission to allow only one representative per party in counting centers. “Changing of the rules at the last minute undermines faith in the electoral system,” she said.

The opposition is made up of the Islamic Party of Malaysia, which has a strong base in the northern peninsula, the Chinese-led Democratic Action Party, which has a loyal urban following, and the relatively young National Justice Party of Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who was dismissed from office after an internal squabble in the governing party in the late 1990s.

Mr. Anwar is barred from running for office in this election because of a 1999 conviction for abuse of power in a highly politicized trial. But he has campaigned on behalf of the other candidates from his party, including his wife and daughter. (The New York Times)

***** When was the pillow sent to our PM? And frankly do you prefer Najib to Pak Lah? The very thought of Najib becoming PM should send shivers up and down your spine.
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2 Comments:

Blogger kittykat46 said...

Najib as next Prime Minister is an even more unpleasant thought than 4 more years of Bodowi.

Talk about being Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.

1:49 PM GMT+8  
Blogger warta tua said...

"A top aide to the deputy prime minister is on trial, charged with abetting the slaying of his Mongolian mistress, a killing that two police commandos who also served as Mr. Abdullah’s bodyguards are charged with carrying out. And the nation was stunned last year by the release of a videotape of a prominent lawyer apparently brokering judicial appointments with a top judge. The videotape was made before Mr. Abdullah came to power but has led to renewed calls for reforms of the judiciary."

As a concern citizen, I must point out the erroneous statements of this NY Times correspondent. First, the 2 police commandos charged for murdering Mongolian girl are NOT PM Abdullah's body guards, they are Najib Razak, the deputy PM's body guards.
Second, the video tape showing a lawyer brokering the selection of judges was not in anyway related to PM Abdullah, it was done during the time Mahathir was in power. Mahathir had said he had the power to pick anyone he liked. So Abdullah's name should not be dragged in for discussion on this corrupt practice.

4:04 PM GMT+8  

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