March 18, 2004

Mahathir snubbed in poll run-up

By Kimina Lyall, Southeast Asia correspondent in Kuala Terengganu, Malaysia

MAHATHIR Mohamad has been given the cold shoulder by his own political party, with officials cancelling his planned trip to Terengganu, one of the most hotly contested states in Sunday's Malaysian election, because he is "not suitable" for the politics of the area.
The thinly disguised snub reflects how completely Dr Mahathir's successor, Abdullah Badawi, has isolated the former prime minister from his political power base and his party, the United Malays National Organisation.
Dr Mahathir's invisibility is also one of the few surprises of this election campaign, and one of the many of the post-Mahathir political environment. Prior to his retirement in October after 22 years in the top job, many analysts predicted that he would maintain a strong backstage presence in Malaysian politics.
At that time, Dr Mahathir and senior members of his party talked up his expected impact on the upcoming poll, with Dr Mahathir declaring that he "needed to help the elections". But since the election campaign began last weekend, Dr Mahathir has visited only two states -- his home state of Kedah and the politically safe Sarawak -- along with three electorates in Kuala Lumpur.
He planned to arrive yesterday in Terengganu and Kelantan -- two states held by the fundamentalist Islamic opposition. But a senior UMNO official in Terengganu told The Australian the central working committee had decided to cancel his trip.
"The people of Terengganu are too busy to receive his visit," said Saidi Salleh, an aide to the state's most senior UMNO candidate. "It is not an insult but we are busy getting ready for (Friday's) visit of the Prime Minister.
"(He) is very important to come to Terengganu. The former PM is not suitable to the politics of Terengganu."
Terengganu is expected to be the key battleground of the campaign, with Mr Abdullah determined to wrest back power from the opposition coalition led by Parti Islam Semalaysia (PAS).
The coalition took 28 of the 32 state seats and all of the eight federal seats in 1999.
It was the most dramatic swing against the ruling coalition in decades, with most analysts blaming a backlash against Dr Mahathir for the jailing of his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
The news of the cancelled trip did not reach the Mahathir camp until some members of his entourage had made their way to the airport in Kuala Lumpur yesterday to board his private plane for the flights to Kuala Terengganu. They said later that the trip had been cancelled because Dr Mahathir had developed a cold.
His trip to Kelantan, also scheduled for yesterday, was also cancelled, although officials there refused to say why.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"