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Mar 12, 2008

Malaysia PM fails to gauge public anger


KUALA LUMPUR (AP): Malaysia's prime minister may have made his biggest political blunder by calling early elections that only exposed public anger over simmering racial tensions and his perceived missteps.

Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was sworn in Monday for a new five-year term in office, following a stinging defeat by his ruling coalition in general elections. Abdullah is rejecting calls to step down, but analysts say Saturday's poll results will place Abdullah under pressure to resign.

``He misread the signs. A lot of people were voting against Badawi,'' said Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer and political commentator. ``He became the face of the mismanagement of the country.''

Abdullah's National Front coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the 222-member parliament for the first time in four decades, winning only a simple majority of 140 seats.

The opposition gained control of five of Malaysia's 13 states and a third of its parliament in the biggest electoral upset in the country's history.

The results were seen as a verdict against a string of perceived missteps by Abdullah, 68, and his failure to fulfill promises made ahead of the 2004 elections, which the National Front won in its biggest victory ever.

Among those missteps, analysts said, Abdullah ignored Malaysia's widening poverty gap and increasing cost of living. He appointed his son-in-law Khairy Jamaluddin as an adviser. And when the southern state of Johor was struggling after floods in 2006, Abdullah was in Perth to inaugurate his brother's curry restaurant.

Abdullah also has faced criticism for remarrying less than two years after his first wife died of cancer and engaging in public displays of affection with his new wife.

``At a time when the country is crumbling around us we have to watch his lovey-dovey going-ons with his wife,'' said Malik. ``People don't want to see a lovable teddy bear. They want a tough leader.''

Abdullah's next big test will come later this year when he faces the general assembly of the United Malays National Organization, the largest party in the National Front coalition. A date has not yet been set.

``The reality is that there will be tremendous pressure within UMNO for him (Abdullah) to step down,'' said Bridget Welsh of the Johns Hopkins University, a Southeast Asia expert who was in Malaysia to monitor the polls.

Former longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad already has called for Abdullah's resignation, saying he had ``apparently made the wrong choice'' when he hand-picked Abdullah to succeed him in 2003.

Mahathir's son Mukhriz, an active member of UMNO, joined the call.

``The message is clear from the results of the elections. That's the voice of the people. We have to respect it. It is a very humbling experience and points to dissatisfaction of the prime minister's leadership,'' he said.

The Front's formula for success all these years was simple. It is a coalition of 11 small parties and three major ones that represent Malaysia's main ethnic groups _ the majority Muslim Malays who make up 60 percent of the 27 million population, the Chinese at 25 percent and Indians at 8 percent.

Traditionally, Malays have voted for UMNO, the Chinese for the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Indians for the Malaysian Indian Congress.

The power-sharing arrangement has worked as long as the three races believed only their parties could look after their respective communities' interests. But the minorities have become increasingly disappointed with their parties.

The Chinese and Indians are angry about an affirmative action program known as the New Economic Policy that has given Malays preference in jobs, education, business, housing, finance and religion since 1971.

They also worry that their religious rights are being eroded by the government. Several Indian temples were destroyed by authorities last year, purportedly for illegal construction, and many courts presiding over religious disputes ruled in favor of Muslims.

Ordinary Malays also are unhappy, many charging that the benefits of the New Economic Policy are being reaped only by rich and well-connected Malays.

Repressive police tactics have further aggravated racial tensions. In October, officers dispersed thousands of people with tear gas and water cannons at a street protest for electoral and judicial reforms.

A month later, Indian demonstrators were chased away by police when they held a rally to protest discrimination. Five of their leaders were jailed under a law that allows indefinite detention without trial.

These tensions were tapped by the opposition parties, which for the first time set aside their ideological differences and came together to pose a united challenge. They countered National Front propaganda in government-controlled media with campaigns on the Internet.

In the end, the Indian and Chinese minorities abandoned the National Front in droves. MCA, the Chinese party, won only 15 of the 40 seats it contested, and the Indian MIC won three out of nine. UMNO won only 78 seats compared to 109 in 2004.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim campaigned on a platform that urged people to look outside race-based politics. Although the opposition parties are also identified by race, they have agreed to build a multiracial alliance where all races will be treated equally.

``What is crucial now is how the opposition works as a coalition,'' Welsh said. ``The mandate given to them has created a national opposition for the first time.''


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