Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Malaysian PM calls early election

Abdullah, left, must emerge from the shadow of the long-serving Mahathir.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) -- Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said parliament will be dissolved on Thursday, paving the way for a snap election within weeks that is expected to be a referendum on his four-month rule.
State news agency Bernama said on Wednesday Abdullah made the decision to call early polls, without giving further details.
Abdullah took over from Mahathir Mohamad on November 1 when the veteran leader stepped aside in favor of his deputy after 22 years in power.
Abdullah met the king on Wednesday amid heated speculation he would take advantage of an accelerating economy and booming stock market to launch an election that was not due to be held until November.
The main stock market index, which was just a few points short of 900 points on Tuesday, slipped back nearly 2 percent to 877 points just after Abdullah's announcement.
Stocks had undergone a characteristic pre-election rally -- the benchmark index has gained 8 percent in the last month -- though it lagged other Asian indices over the past year.
The new prime minister, an ex-civil servant and a long-time presence in Mahathir's cabinets, has earned plaudits at home and abroad by marking the start of the post-Mahathir era with an anti-corruption campaign and a call for ethical governance.
He appointed a new chief of police, and last month a government minister was arrested and charged with corruption.
But the 64-year-old son of a respected Muslim scholar needs to strengthen his grip on power by solidly defeating the conservative Islamist opposition at the polls.
The only setback Abdullah has suffered in the run-up to polls has been the stunning news that a company controlled by his son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, was linked to the nuclear arms proliferation scandal involving Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Polls must follow within 60 days of parliament's dissolution but the Election Commission is expected to set the date much earlier, with campaigning maybe limited to less than two weeks.
The ruling coalition's victory is assured -- the mulit-ethnic Barisan Nasional has formed every government since independence from Britain in 1957.
But the coalition relied on support from Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities to retain its two-thirds majority in 1999.
Abdullah also needs his own United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to claw back ground lost in 1999 when the party won less than half the ethnic Malay vote to the Islamists and supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, the popular former deputy prime minister sacked and jailed in 1998.
Another weak showing by UMNO would reinforce perceptions that Abdullah is a one-term leader, and encourage ambitious rivals within the party to begin plotting his downfall.
A total of 219 parliament seats and 505 state seats are up for grabs.
But the main battle will be fought in the Malay heartland in the rural north of the Peninsula, where the Islamists have most influence even though they have just 26 parliamentary seats nationwide.
Malaysia's 25 million population is Asia's second youngest and most of them have only known one leader -- Mahathir.
Just over 10 million are eligible to vote and over three million are UMNO members

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"