Sunday 2 November 2003

Badawi prepares for early elections

A day after being sworn in as Malaysia's new prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told supporters yesterday to get ready for a general election.After taking over from Mahathir Mohamad, who had led the country for 22 years, Abdullah's first priority was a trip home to Penang island on Malaysia's northwest coast.
A crowd of about 10,000 well-wishers drawn from all of Malaysia's three main ethnic groups gathered at the state's airport to greet him.
"I wouldn't be here speaking as prime minister without the support of the people," he said.
Abdullah promised to work for greater racial unity in Malaysia and told the ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians who endured searing heat to greet him, "Let us work harder so that when we face a general election, we will achieve a bigger success than in 1999," he told them.
In his speech, Abdullah paid tribute to Mahathir, saying his predecessor had left behind a "truly effective, modern and successful government."
Victory for the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition is assured at the next election, which members of the new leadership circle suggest may be called by March or April, although it is not due until the end of next year.
But Abdullah needs a convincing showing for his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to push back a challenge by a conservative Islamist opposition for the Muslim, ethnic Malay vote.
The support of Malaysia's sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities helped the coalition keep its crucial two-thirds majority in 1999, despite UMNO losing more than half the Malay vote.
In Penang, rain fell to cool the crowd whose flags and banners showed where their support lay.
"Towards a New Era With Pak Lah," read one, referring to the new premier by his nickname - a diminutive of Uncle Abdullah.
But people did not express much desire for change.
"Malaysia is like a car now that is running smoothly. You don't want to overtune it," said Lawrence Sadarnar Samy, 36, an ethnic Indian and former air force serviceman.
But some suggested a rethink of a three-decade old affirmative action policies favouring ethnic Malays. "I hope he can continue with the good policies. There should be equal chances for all races," said ethnic Chinese businessman Koh Aun Choo, 55.
The transition of power, agreed in the middle of last year, has been smooth but Abdullah now has to contend with ambitious second tier leaders in UMNO.
Sources within the leadership's inner circle said Abdullah is most likely to name his deputy prime minister in December.
They said the favourite for the job is Defence Minister Najib Razak. Other cabinet changes will be made after an election, one political source said.