Abdullah Badawi, the Malaysian prime minister, yesterday won the full backing of the ruling party in its first official statement on a growing rift with his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, that has raised fears of political instability.
The declaration of support was issued after the monthly meeting of the supreme council of the United Malays National Organisation, although it refused to censure Dr Mahathir for recent comments that the government was reversing his policies.
Dr Mahathir, who stepped down as prime minister in 2003, still wields considerable influence in Umno, and his blistering attack on the Abdullah administration has led to speculation that he is seeking to foment a party revolt against the prime minister.
The political dispute is seen as a potential threat to efforts by Mr Abdullah to push for economic and political reforms that are opposed by some Umno party chiefs.
“There is no faction in Umno,” said Najib Razak, the deputy prime minister, whom Dr Mahathir recently identified as his preferred successor. “If there are any criticisms that come up from Dr Mahathir or any other leader then we must explain objectively, factually and politely.”
The Umno council, which includes national and state party leaders, said it was supporting Mr Abdullah because of “the strong mandate” that his government received in the 2004 general election, the biggest victory for Umno since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.
The Umno decision could provide some breathing space for Mr Abdullah, although political analysts say that tensions could emerge when Umno holds its party convention next year.
Dr Mahathir has escalated his criticism of the Abdullah administration in recent weeks, attacking its management of Proton, the national carmaker that he helped set up in the 1980s, and its decision to abandon building a bridge to Singapore, which the former prime minister favoured.
Mr Abdullah has defended his actions, saying the measures were necessary to improve the efficiency of state-owned companies and to avoid a protracted diplomatic dispute with Singapore over the bridge project.