Sun, Mar 07, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Malaysian PM launches election campaign

THE RACE IS ON Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi says the jailed figurehead of Malaysia's opposition, Anwar Ibrahim, is not expected to be a major issue in the contest

AP , KEPALA BATAS

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi yesterday raises his hand with supporters during a visit to his home constituency of Kepala Batas in the northwestern Penang state.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said yesterday he could understand why people had sympathy for Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed figurehead of Malaysia's opposition, but urged voters to back his ruling coalition in upcoming elections.

Launching his campaign for March 21 polls at his home district in northern Penang state, Abdullah added he didn't expect Anwar to be a major issue in the contest.

Public outrage at Anwar's jailing shortly before the last elections in 1999 helped the opposition make its strongest gains in years. It's trying to once again make Anwar into a campaign issue, maintaining that it will free the former deputy premier if it wins power and make him prime minister.

The opposition accuses Abdullah of ignoring the plight of Anwar because he is a political threat. Anwar was former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's anointed successor, before he fell out of favor.

Mahathir retired in October after 22 years in power, handing it over to Abdullah.

"I don't think it will be a factor," Abdullah said when asked about possible voter sympathy for Anwar.

"There may be some who have sympathy for him, but despite [this] they will want to vote for the National Front" governing coalition, he told a news conference after addressing about 2,000 people in his hometown.

Voters understood that the government could do more for them than the opposition, he said.

"It's not about one personality, it's about forming a government," he said. "I am not telling people not to be sympathetic, but they must try to decide what kind of government they want."

Anwar was arrested, tried and convicted of sodomy and corruption after falling out with Mahathir during the Asian financial crisis. He says the charges were a political conspiracy to prevent him from challenging Mahathir, which the government denies.

Abdul Hadi Awang, the leader of a fundamentalist Islamic party that is Malaysia's largest opposition group, said Friday it would campaign for Anwar's release.

"To us, Anwar remains a symbol of oppression," Hadi said. "It is our responsibility to defend him. ... Even Saddam Hussein received better treatment as a war prisoner."

Later yesterday, Abdullah held a smaller rally in the rural district of Kepala Batas -- his birthplace and parliamentary constituency since 1978 -- where he boasted to about 500 supporters about the government's record of delivering services to the people.

Malaysia's northern states, with their large ethnic Malay Muslim populations, are the fiercest battlegrounds between Abdullah's United Malays National Organization and the fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party.

Signs of campaigning are increasingly clear. In Penang, Abdullah drove past roadside stalls and streetlights draped with flags -- some with UMNO's scales of justice logo and slogans such as "UMNO: Then, now and forever," and other's with the Islamic party's crescent moon logo.

Abdullah's government is almost certain to be returned to power when voters select 219 members of a new federal Parliament and 505 representatives of legislatures in 12 of Malaysia's 13 states.

Abdullah has made fighting corruption and achieving more efficient, open government his campaign themes.

The opposition is targeting him over Anwar, and his handling of an investigation into a company controlled by his son played in supplying parts to a nuclear black market.

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