KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 (Reuters) - Malaysia's soft-spoken prime minister could be forced to take off the gloves soon to tackle bitter opposition from predecessor Mahathir Mohamad as he dismantles key parts of the feisty former leader's legacy.
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, an Islamic scholar dubbed "Mr Nice", has drawn withering criticism from Mahathir after scrapping plans for a bridge to neighbouring Singapore that ran into opposition from the wealthy city state and stirred unease at home.
The bridge was first envisioned by Mahathir, who picked Abdullah to replace him before retiring in 2003 after 22 years in power -- a choice confirmed by a landslide national election win.
Known for a consensual approach to politics that dramatically contrasts with Mahathir's decisive style, Abdullah stunned the nation last week when he axed plans for a bridge to replace a causeway linking Malaysia with Singapore.
The row appears to pose little long-term threat to the governing coalition, or to investors' confidence, but could still smudge Abdullah's image.
"Whether Abdullah has the mettle to withstand the criticism is hard to say at this juncture," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asia specialist at John Hopkins University.
"Abdullah's leadership lacks the gloss of the first few years in office," she told Reuters. "The office of the prime minister is strong, but Abdullah personally has been tarnished by attacks, creating the perception of weak and indecisive leadership."
The bridge project ranked among Mahathir's favourites, along with Malaysia's national car Proton
Malaysia should not have bowed to pressure to halt the bridge, a visibly upset Mahathir said after the news. "If I didn't leave, it would have started 2 years ago," he added.
Abdullah, 66, said this week his decision would stand, though people were free to say what they liked about it. He did not mention Mahathir by name in remarks that won praise for their restraint.
Opposition parties had few kind words for Mahathir.
"If he's angry, so what?" quipped opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who Mahathir sacked from his post as deputy prime minister in 1998. Anwar was later arrested and jailed before his release in 2004.
"This country is owned by Malaysians and not by one man," Anwar added. "This is the problem of authoritarianism."
Many Malaysians still regard Mahathir as the father of modern Malaysia because his rule saw the country rise from an agricultural backwater to a manufacturing hub.
But as Malaysia struggles to reshape its economy in the face of competition from low-cost producers such as China, many of Mahathir's projects have begun to seem expensive or outmoded.
"This was a legacy problem that Abdullah inherited from the previous administration," the Sun newspaper said. "(Mahathir's) mistake has proved to be very expensive to us."
Mahathir, 80, has queried other decisions of Abdullah's government, including the scrapping of a railway project and Proton's sale of its ailing Italian motorcycle unit, MV Agusta.
"Dr Mahathir now realises that his legacy may be coming apart," said K.S. Nathan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. "He therefore feels the need to defend his policies."
U.S. analyst Welsh cautioned against reading too much into the clash of personalities. "The pattern in Malaysia has been for retired prime ministers to check governing leaders," she said.
As a youthful leader, Mahathir himself had faced criticism from Malaysia's founding prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, so Abdullah's is not entirely a new experience.