Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Malaysia's mandate for moderation

By CNN Correspondent Maria Ressa

Muslim women line up behind a banner reading "General Election" to cast their votes in northern Malaysia.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (CNN) -- -- The stunning electoral victory by Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi last Sunday has given this unassuming politician a resounding mandate to steer his nation on a course of his own charting.
Crucially, by winning nearly 90 percent of the seats in an unprecedented landslide result, Abdullah's UMNO government can function without being beholden to the dictates of religious fundamentalism.
"It means I have an endorsement of the many things I would like to do and that's good," Abdullah told CNN.
"It gives me the confidence to proceed, knowing very well that the people are behind me."
Malaysia's elections were portrayed as a battle for the Muslim soul, with the key question being which political party had the true vision of Islam.
Abdullah championed a moderate, progressive form of Islam, taking his cause to the stronghold of the opposition, fundamentalist party, PAS.
PAS, by contrast, wanted to turn Malaysia into a strict Islamic state with laws sanctioning execution by stoning and amputating thieves' hands.
The result was extraordinary. Recounts notwithstanding, the prime minister's ruling party won control over at least 12 of 13 Malay states.
"I think the extremist Muslims have been decimated. It's almost as if the Pope has lost the Vatican," said Noordin Soopie from the Institute of Strategic Studies.
The key to the victory, analysts say, was Abdullah himself.
The anointed successor of the long-serving and domineering Malaysian leader Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Abdullah gave himself just four months in the top job to establish his credentials before going to the polls.
"The strategy is to get out and see the people and talk to them. I was seen. I was heard. I was convinced that they were listening to us," Abdullah said.
A Muslim scholar from a family of Muslim leaders, Abdullah co-opted the fundamentalists' anti-corruption campaign, promising more development and accountability in government.
It was a strategy that took his approval rating to an all-time high.
"He brought along with him a different kind of style in his leadership -- being humble, being transparent, being down to earth with the Malays, especially, which suited the culture very much," Abdullah supporter Mohammed Noor Kadir told CNN.
Abdullah was also able to erase the memory of the 1999 elections, when many, like Kadir, voted for PAS to protest the treatment of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim by Mahathir.
Many Malaysians believe Anwar was jailed unfairly on trumped-up sodomy and corruption charges.
Analysts say Abdullah's triumph is a good precedent for the Muslim world -- that dialogue can turn fundamentalists into moderates.
Now the pressure is on Abdullah to deliver, and he promises to do so starting with his first official act -- choosing his cabinet.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"