Saturday March 20, 2004

Bureaucrat's coalition faces up to election challenge of Islamists

Quiet man fights for the soul of Malaysia

By John Aglionby in Kuala Terengganu

The faithful filed from the mosques into the streets of Kuala Terengganu, this city on the north-east coast of peninsular Malaysia, their sarongs fluttering in the evening onshore breeze. As they dispersed into the eerily quiet streets, thousands of general election campaign posters flapped erratically, their bold colours dominating an otherwise austere scene.
Half the posters were emblazoned with the blue of the 14-party National Front coalition which controls the federal government, the rest with the green of the main opposition Islamist Pan-Malaysia Islamic party (Pas) which won control of the oil-rich Terengganu state at the last election in 1999.
The deserted streets are the result of four years of Islamist government. All entertainment centres have been shut, unmarried members of the opposite sex are not allowed to go out together in public and only a federal government veto prevented the implementation of Islamic law.
That would have seen amputation for crimes of theft, gambling and prostitution and stoning for rape and murder.
Slowly crumbling through years of neglect, the half-built shopping centre stands as a monument to a bygone era.
"If we don't want to go to the [election] campaign meetings there's nowhere for us to go except home," said Rahman Idris, a fireman. "Pas wants us to spend our evenings reading the Koran."
Brightly-lit bars 180 miles away in the bustling streets of Georgetown, the main city on Penang island on the west coast of Malaysia could not provide a greater contrast. "It's important to be able to have a good time," said Lee Ti Ong as he ordered a beer at the Blue Diamond cafe. "It would be crazy to shut all of this down."
Despite the energetic nightlife, numerous mosques and temples show that religion is still important, though practised in a more moderate manner. Those who want to lead a secular lifestyle are free to do so.
This debate over religion will be one of two determining issues when Malaysians go to the polls tomorrow to elect a new government.
Pas's brand of ultra-orthodox Islam and an accompanying call for purer living has won over increasing numbers of supporters despite an aggressive government campaign to brand the party as a Taliban regime-in-waiting.
Responding to the attacks and a concerted National Front drive to portray itself as following "truer" Islamic traditions, Pas has toned down the fiery rhetoric . The desire to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state did not even make its final manifesto.
The second key factor is Abdullah Badawi, who replaced Malaysia's veteran maverick prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, as leader of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) five months ago and is seeking to put his own stamp on the nation through a combination of populism and fighting corruption.
Mr Badawi, a mild-mannered bureaucrat, is seen as a sincere consensus-builder. His background as an Islamic scholar enables him to combat Pas on Islamic issues with much more credibility than Dr Mahathir ever did.
With his power over the bureaucracy, the advantage of incumbency, a massive financial advantage and total control of the mainstream media, Mr Badawi's overall victory is almost assured.
Thanks to blatant gerrymandering that created 26 new seats in mostly government-controlled areas and a strongly-recovering economy, he is likely to win two thirds of the 219 parliamentary seats with a popular vote of less than 60%.
Indeed, the retirement of Dr Mahathir - whose arrogance was seen increasingly as an electoral liability - and the marginalisation of Anwar Ibrahim, Dr Mahathir's jailed former deputy whom the US describes as a political prisoner, mean he might sweep 200 seats.
But this could all count for little unless he reverses the Islamist surge in northern Malay-dominated states like Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis.
"Umno's dominance of government is based on the perception it is the natural choice for the Malays," said Maznah Mohamad of the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. "But that was shown to be untrue at the last election and unless he stops the rot he could be in trouble."
The National Front's vote tumbled 9% to 56.5% in 1999 but, more crucially, for the first time Umno won over less than half of the Malay voters, who make up more than 60% of the population, the rest being 30% Chinese and the rest Indians.
Analysts say that if Pas were to win a third state - it controls Kelantan in addition to Terengganu - in-fighting within Umno could explode into the open because Mr Badawi could no longer claim to be the Malays' true champion.
"I would say it's 50-50," Dr Maznah said. "Pas is fielding younger people and professionals as candidates to project an image of being a more progressive party.
"Moreover Umno is just promising more development which is almost insulting to the people. They want to see that Umno has truly reformed and is no longer so elitist and arrogant."
Mr Badawi himself has no doubts, even though in the absence of proper polling all predictions are speculative.
"The support I am getting here shows that people see Pas is taking them backwards not forwards," he told the Guardian during a tour of Terengganu. "I am very confident of victory across the country."
Pas candidates hope they will have the last laugh though. "Look at our campaign rallies compared to theirs," said Syed Azman Syed Ahmed, MP for Kuala Terengganu. "For the first time we are getting non-Muslim Chinese not only attending but participating. Can you imagine a stronger signal of dissatisfaction with the National Front?"

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"