More cracks in Abdullah’s crumbling facade

Posted by SM Maulana

Apart from the disgruntled Sabah and Sarawak parliamentarians, Abdullah also has to contend with a rival within UMNO, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who is bidding to challenge him for the party presidency in December.

By Anil Netto, Asia Times Online

These are trying times for Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who after a sub-par showing in the March general elections now faces opposition both from inside and outside his Barisan Nasional (BN) ruling coalition.

Many political analysts speculate his administration will not last the year as the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance ramps up its efforts to either poach parliamentarians from the BN into its camp or secure a no-confidence vote in parliament.

The latest blow to coalition unity came on June 18, when two parliamentarians from the Sabah Progressive Party (SPP), a small coalition member from the north Borneo state of Sabah, said they would support a planned no-confidence motion on June 23 against the prime minister. Such a no-confidence motion would have required advance notice and in the end, no vote was put to the house.

But another opportunity arose the same day when a politically sensitive vote on a recent government-ordered reduction in fuel price subsidies, which resulted in a 41% hike in pump prices, was put to parliament. Ruling coalition officials had been on tenterhooks in the run-up to the vote and heaved a sigh of relief when it was passed with a 129-78 majority.

Nonetheless, 11 BN parliamentarians failed to show up for the crucial vote, among them the two disaffected SPP parliamentarians. A report on the SPP’s website on the same day said that, since June 18, its leaders had been advised by “friendly parties” not to underestimate “the risky consequences and likely threats” to the party and its leaders.

The legislative endorsement for Abdullah’s fuel price hikes has not dampened speculation that his government could yet face a vote of no confidence if, in the coming months, enough members of parliament defect to the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, or People’s Alliance. At the same time, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has indicated that there are enough parliamentarians who would be willing to defect to his side by September 16, the date commemorating the formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963.

The ruling coalition currently has a 140-82 majority over the opposition alliance in terms of numbers of parliamentarians, while the opposition alliance is looking for at least 30 coalition members to defect in its bid to seize power. It is believed that Anwar is in particular targeting parliamentarians from the states of Sabah and Sarawak, which are rich in natural resources, including oil and timber. The ruling coalition includes 24 parliamentarians from Sabah and 30 from Sarawak.

Opposition leaders are also believed to be courting disgruntled members of Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which currently has 79 seats in parliament and Anwar was formerly a member.

Many in Sabah and neighboring Sarawak feel aggrieved by what they see as the marginalization of their states in the Malaysian federation. The two entities, along with Singapore and Malaya, merged to form Malaysia in 1963, though Singapore left the federation two years later. Now, Sabah and Sarawak are widely viewed as just two among the federation’s 13 states, even though they were previously granted special administrative concessions in recognition of their distinct character.

Apart from the disgruntled Sabah and Sarawak parliamentarians, Abdullah also has to contend with a rival within UMNO, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who is bidding to challenge him for the party presidency in December. He also has to deal with the scathing pot-shots lobbed at him by his prime ministerial predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, whose critical blog postings have received widespread attention.

Moreover, Abdullah has to lug the political baggage that his deputy, Najib Razak, brings along. On Tuesday, the parliamentary speaker rejected a motion by veteran opposition parliamentarian Lim Kit Siang to discuss the latest allegations surrounding the murder of a Mongolian woman, whose body was blown up with explosives in a remote area in 2006.

Popular blogger Raja Petra filed a written declaration in the high court last week alleging that Najib’s wife and two others – an acting colonel and his wife – were at the scene on the night of the murder. A close associate of Najib’s, Abdul Razak Baginda, and two police special operatives already stand accused in court in the ongoing murder trial. But Raja Petra’s sensational allegations point to higher-ups who have not yet been brought to court.

Abdullah said he doesn’t believe that either Najib or his wife were involved and has denied Raja Petra’s allegation that he had received a written report from military intelligence over the murder. Najib, for his part, has denied that he and his wife were involved in the murder. “Everything that is written is a total lie and fabrication,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s total garbage.”

Anwar in the wings

Meanwhile, various civil society groups and the youth wings of opposition parties are planning a massive protest against the oil price hike on July 5, when organizers hope – somewhat ambitiously – to gather a million aggrieved Malaysians in the heart of the capital Kuala Lumpur. Government crackdowns on street protests staged by aggrieved Hindu groups last year were one factor in UMNO’s disappointing electoral performance in March, analysts have said.

All the while, Anwar Ibrahim lies in wait for the opportune moment to make one final push to seize power for the opposition alliance. In that connection, all eyes are focused on what happens next in Sabah. Through its actions last week and its defiance of the ruling coalition, SAPP has tapped into a current of discontent after having toed the party line for years.

The party sees the current moment as a window of opportunity to achieve greater autonomy for Sabah, which despite its considerable oil resources only receives 5% in royalties from the national government. It is a perennial source of political discontent in the state, which has large pockets of poverty in its interior areas, and the small party now seems keen to renegotiate those terms for its future political support. Anwar has already promised the oil-producing states that he would raise their royalty to 20%.

A recent report on the SAPP’s official website said, “The momentum for us to recover our autonomy, get 20% oil royalties and return of Labuan [an island off Sabah now regarded as a federal territory] would be lost. Unfair federal laws, excessive taxes and structural imbalances in the economy will remain entrenched. Sabah will remain the poorest state subservient to the central leadership. Labuan bridge, poverty eradication and rural development will remain elusive. Racial politics and wasteful monopolies will continue as usual.”

Abdullah has tried to cajole the Sabahans by scrapping the Federal Development Department – an intermediary for federal funds allocated to the state – and with the appointment of a local Sabahan as the vice chancellor of the University Malaysia Sabah. His government has also set up a cabinet committee to look into the large number of illegal immigrants – a major source of discontentment among Sabahans. Najib has said that the government will soon launch a major operation against illegal immigrants.

But those moves are likely to be too little too late for many Sabahans to maintain their political support to the BN. As the political temperature rises, Abdullah has also bid to soften the blow caused by the removal of oil subsidies.

For instance, the government has started to pay out cash rebates amounting to 625 ringgit (US$192) to each car owner across the country. And in an apparent nod to the call for more political openness, his administration has allowed the opposition Harakah newspaper, run by the Islamic Party, PAS, to publish twice a week – its original frequency – instead of once a fortnight as was the case until now.

But that was quickly forgotten this week as new administrative rules restricting reporters’ access to the lobby of parliament provoked an angry reaction among mainstream media journalists, prompting them to boycott several press conferences held by politicians in parliament. And with higher oil prices hitting the livelihoods of all Malaysians, it seems unlikely the pressure on Abdullah – and the ruling coalition – will ease any time soon.

Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer.

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