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Dec 20, 2007

Unresolved Issues May Delay Malaysia's Polls

via: saif2020.spaces.live.com

By Leslie Lopez, South-east Asia Correspondent
The Straits Times

THE deep chinks in Malaysia's race-based populist democracy have been laid bare with the recent street demonstrations, presenting Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi with the most serious political challenge so far to his four-year premiership.

Close associates of the Prime Minister say the growing assertiveness of the country's opposition and non-governmental organisations have prompted him to rethink his plans on when to call for national elections, which must be held before April 2009.

'A month ago I would have guessed that elections would be held sometime during the first quarter of next year,' says Mr Khairy Jamaluddin, the deputy youth chief of the ruling United Malays National Organisation party (Umno) and the Prime Minister's influential son-in-law.

'Now my bet would be sometime later next year,' he adds.

But many analysts and politicians have said that delaying the polls could be a costly gamble for the Abdullah government.

Economic uncertainties posed by the prospect of higher global oil prices and the potential of a severe slowdown in the United States economy could compound the political woes confronting the ruling National Front coalition led by Datuk Seri Abdullah's Umno.

The dilemma of when to hold elections is also hurting the Premier's economic reforms.

Consider the decision to abandon striking a deal with German automobile giant Volkswagen AG that was meant to resuscitate Malaysia's beleaguered national carmaker, Proton.

Administration officials privately have conceded the decision to walk away from the Volkswagen alliance was taken because several senior ministers in Datuk Seri Abdullah's Cabinet had argued that the opposition could exploit the deal by accusing the government of selling out a strategic industry to foreign concerns.

But private economists say that by refusing to graft Proton to an international auto giant, Malaysia has squandered a rare chance to turn itself into a regional automotive hub.

'Unless elections are held soon, the government won't be inclined to make the tough decisions the country needs to make the economy more competitive,' says a chief executive of a state- owned bank who asked not to be named.

No one is suggesting that the Umno-led National Front that has governed the country since independence in 1957 will lose the next elections.

But a poor showing or, worse yet, the loss of its two-thirds majority in Parliament could severely undermine Datuk Seri Abdullah's position in Umno, which must hold its own party polls in 2010.

There are already rumblings of unhappiness within his own party over Datuk Seri Abdullah's management of the country, and several analysts say the Premier, who is also Umno president, could be challenged in the next party elections.

But for now, his apparent inclination to push back his plans for snap elections is being welcomed by the country's opposition.

'It will be good for us,' former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim, who has become the de-facto leader of Malaysia's loose opposition alliance, told The Straits Times this week.

'Unless the government shows that it is serious about dealing with the many issues, the unhappiness is only going to grow.'

The opposition was routed in the last national polls in 2004 when Datuk Seri Abdullah led the National Front to a record landslide victory on a platform that promised sweeping economic and political reform.

But the magic seems to have been lost. |more...|


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