March 22, 2004

New Premier of Malaysia Gets Mandate
All His Own


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 21 The major Islamic party in Malaysia lost significant ground in parliamentary and state elections here on Sunday as the governing coalition of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi coasted to victory.
The Islamic party, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, lost the state legislatures in the northern state of Terengganu and in the neighboring state of Kelantan. (Note: Recounts in a number of constituencies finally gave PAS control over Kelantan. - GPJ)
In a humiliating loss, the leader of the party, Ulama Hadi Awang, lost his federal parliamentary seat.
The fortunes of the Islamic party, which won control of the Terengganu state legislature four years ago, were being closely watched as a barometer of militant Islam in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, holds parliamentary elections early next month.
Since taking control in Terengganu, the Islamic party, or Pas, has imposed religious laws, including bans on alcohol and gambling.
"If this election says one thing it says that Malaysia is rejecting the Islamization policies of Pas," said Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asia studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is visiting here. "Pas has been decimated."
Mr. Abdullah, 64, who inherited the prime minister's job in November from the longstanding incumbent, Mahathir Mohamed, ran on an anticorruption platform. He presented a more benign tone than did his brittle predecessor, and as a descendant of Muslim scholars, the new prime minister appealed to voters who support a moderate version of Islam.
That approach stymied the efforts of the Parti Islam se-Malaysia to build on its gains in the Malay heartland in the north.
Mr. Abdullah, whose coalition is dominated by the United Malays National Organization, called the early elections as a way of affirming his position at the helm of Southeast Asia's most modern Muslim country.
As a symbol of Malaysia's modernity, Sunday's elections had to compete for attention with the victory of Michael Schumacher in the Malaysian Grand Prix, which attracted big crowds at the racetrack and around television sets in the streets of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Mr. Abdullah emphasized throughout the brief campaign that Malaysians needed to deliver an outstanding majority of votes for him so that foreign investors, who had helped turn the country into an electronics manufacturing hub, would keep coming. His unspoken plea was that China is breathing down Malaysia's neck as an economic competitor.
About 60 percent of Malaysia's 23 million population are Muslims. Ethnic Indians and Chinese are significant minorities, who play an important role in the Malaysian economy. Nervous about the Parti Islam se-Malaysia, these ethnic minorities have been stalwart backers of the coalition that has run the country since 1957.
The ethnic Chinese-dominated party, the Democratic Action Party, did particularly well in this weekend's voting.
"This election was a referendum on what Abdullah Badawi stands for," said Karim Raslan, a newspaper columnist and lawyer here. "He is remarkably popular in the Malay heartland. He has Islamic credentials. He's very Malay very nice, very gentlemanly."
For the United States, the outcome of the voting was positive, Dr. Welsh said. The overriding concern of the Bush administration in Malaysia was the campaign against terror, and on that score Mr. Abdullah is likely to be cooperative, she said.
However there were inherent tensions because the Bush administration always wanted more attention given to terrorist issues and "Malaysia feels there are limits to what they can do," she added.
The Bush administration is deeply unpopular in Malaysia, largely because the campaign against terror is interpreted as a campaign against Islam.
For their part, senior American officials have expressed concern that Malaysia provided a haven for Jemaah Islamiyah, the militant Islamic group held responsible for the Bali bombings, and that it needs to take firmer measures against suspected members.
Leaders of the Islamic party said the government had imposed unfair restrictions on their activities, forcing their candidates to campaign in unfavorable circumstances. The government controlled the newspapers, television and radio, said Dr. Syed Azman Syed Ahmad, a member of Parliament from Terengganu. "I am an angry man," he said in an interview in his office in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu, the day before the election. We don't have access to media. We are fighting them within a framework of democracy with our hands tied. We are basically fighting against the odds."

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"