Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Malaysian leader calls elections


Malaysia's new prime minister yesterday called early national elections that will pit his secular government against a fundamentalist Islamic opposition.

The polls will be Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's first electoral test since taking over in October, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retired after 22 years in power.

They are seen as make-or-break for Abdullah, and will signal whether Islamic fundamentalism is moving into the political mainstream in a multi-ethnic but Muslim-dominated country of 25 million people.

Abdullah has sought to distance himself from the Mahathir era, launching a popular crackdown on corruption in government and industry. He also shelved some big projects linked to a Mahathir-linked tycoon and promised a more open and accountable government.

But his image has been dented by allegations from opposition groups that a police investigation into the trafficking of nuclear parts to Libya was whitewashed to protect his son, who controls the company involved.

Abdullah said in a statement that King Syed Sirajuddin Syed Putra Jamalullail had signed a decree dissolving parliament, effective today. Abdullah broke with tradition by not giving a news conference.

No poll date was immediately set, but the elections should be held within the next two or three weeks. Under Malaysia's parliamentary rules, the king dissolves parliament on the advice of the prime minister, and the Election Commission then meets to set nomination and polling dates.

Agus Yusuff, a political lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, said he expects the polling date to be within three weeks.

Voters will select 219 members of a new federal parliament and 505 representatives of legislatures in 12 of Malaysia's 13 states.

The government's five-year term is not due to expire until November, but a snap election has been widely expected since Abdullah took power.

His United Malays National Organization leads a 14-party ruling coalition that holds 152 of the 193 seats in the current parliament and has almost no chance of losing power.

UMNO, which has supplied every prime minister since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957, faces stiff competition from the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party for support among ethnic Malay Muslims, who comprise about two-thirds of the population.

The Islamic party, which wants to make Malaysia an Islamic state and advocates a Taliban-style criminal code, made strong inroads against UMNO at the last election in 1999, capturing control of a second state in the conservative Muslim-dominated northeast. It has vowed to hold both states and win control of at least one more.

The Islamic party's earlier gains came amid political turmoil in UMNO and widespread anger at Mahathir for the way he put down a challenge by his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, who was jailed on sodomy and corruption charges.

Anwar is much less of a factor now. Rallies that used to attract tens of thousands of supporters now bring in hundreds, and the National Justice Party founded by his wife after his arrest in 1998 has withered amid defections and a dwindling profile.

The Islamic party's performance in 1999 -- and revelations since then that extremists linked to al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiyah terror group have operated in Malaysia -- have helped raise support for the government among liberal Muslims and Malaysia's large ethnic Chinese and Indian communities, which are mostly Christian, Buddhist and Hindu.

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