Talk of revolt and defections

Posted by SM Maulana
Wednesday, 18 June 2008

By Leslie Lopez, The Straits Times

IF THE past 100 days since Malaysia’s historic general election have been choppy, the swells in the next 100 are likely to get worse.

Here is what we can expect in the coming weeks:

• Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi is likely to face a revolt in his ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), which is clamouring for a leadership change to help reverse the party’s waning fortunes.

• Separately, Datuk Seri Abdullah’s Barisan Nasional coalition must contend with the spectre of defections among its elected parliamentary representatives to the opposition coalition, a development that could topple the government.

Against a backdrop of a weakening economy, triggered largely by the sharp spikes in fuel prices, these two very likely developments could push Malaysia into unknown political terrain.

‘We are facing some kind of a crunch, a turning point to the political muddle,’ said a senior leader of a BN component party who requested anonymity.

‘Those in power are facing the prospect that they could lose power, and the other side feels that power is within their grasp.’

It has been 10 years since Malaysia was buffeted by a major crisis.

The crisis in 1998 was triggered by former premier Mahathir Mohamad’s sacking of his then deputy Anwar Ibrahim. That confrontation resulted in prolonged street demonstrations, a huge withdrawal of funds from Malaysia’s financial markets and a security swoop on the government’s political rivals.

Malaysia is now finding itself in a very similar position, and a resurgent Datuk Seri Anwar is once again the chief protagonist in the unfolding political drama.

There are also several new elements at play in Malaysia’s current political swamp, which is making foreign businessmen and fund managers increasingly jittery about the country’s economic prospects.

In 1998, Mr Anwar’s arrest effectively rid his nascent people’s power movement of its charismatic leader. At the time, Umno rallied strongly around Tun Dr Mahathir, and that allowed the strongman to consolidate power quickly by arresting his rivals.

This time around, Mr Anwar’s political platform is more secure because it is anchored on an opposition coalition that boasts 82 seats in Parliament and control of five state assemblies.

He continues to attract huge crowds to his political rallies, and his message that the government’s economic policies are burdening the people is gaining traction.

Unlike a decade ago, the BN government, which has 140 seats in Parliament, does not enjoy a two-thirds majority in the Lower House, and its linchpin Umno is reeling from internal splits.

What is more, Mr Abdullah’s political grip on government and his party is at its weakest since he took over from Dr Mahathir in November 2003.

The other major imponderable is the economy.

In 1998, Dr Mahathir’s imposition of capital controls shielded Malaysia from the economic turmoil of widespread unemployment, crippling debt and poverty that hit neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia.

This time around, however, Malaysians have not been spared the misery of the sharp spikes in fuel prices.

Confronted by increasingly loud demands from his party to hand over power, Mr Abdullah declared last week that he will not be pressured out of office, and signalled his intention to defend the Umno presidency when the party holds its internal elections in December.

Mr Abdullah’s political longevity will depend on the outcome of Umno branch and divisional elections to be held between early August and late September. To contest for the presidency, the incumbent and his challengers must secure nominations from at least 30 per cent of the party divisions nationwide.

Umno officials say that the anti-Abdullah forces plan to nominate potential challengers – who include Deputy Premier and deputy Umno president Najib Razak and party vice-president Muhyiddin Yassin, who is also the International Trade Minister – for the party’s presidency in a bid to embarrass the Prime Minister into resigning.

But such an upheaval in Umno could further weaken the party and the BN government.

That, in turn, could play into Mr Anwar’s strategy of toppling the government by accepting defectors from the government, particularly elected representatives from the component parties of the BN, to his opposition coalition.

Already, there are rumblings that several elected parliamentary representatives from Sabah will defect in coming days.

As the country plods ahead, the big question for Malaysians and foreign investors alike is: Can the country and its politicians navigate through this mess without triggering social unrest?
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