Tue, 09 Nov 1999

Mahathir likely to shift electoral sights to 2000

By Nelson Graves

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters): Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looks increasingly reluctant to go to the polls this year as he tries to build political momentum after a year of unprecedented turmoil.

For months the betting has been that Mahathir would cash in on an economic rebound and the apparent success of capital controls, and call snap elections before the end of the year.

Now he is hemmed in by a complicated calendar, the sex trial of his jailed former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and indications that his powerful political machine needs more time.

"Elections will not take place this year," a political analyst with a local think tank said. "There is no momentum now."

Many analysts are predicting polls in March if Mahathir decides to wait till next year.

The calendar over the first two months of 2000 is complicated by the short period of time between the end of the month-long Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan in early January and Chinese New Year in early February.

Opposition leaders do not expect to beat Mahathir in the next polls, which are due by June 2000 and will be the 73-year-old's fifth electoral test since winning power in 1981.

Riding an economic boom, Mahathir's 14-party multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition won a record four- fifths majority in the last election in 1995.

The very size of his 1995 victory makes the challenge that much tougher for Mahathir this time around.

The opposition's goal is to take more than one third of the 192 seats in the lower house of parliament. It would be the first time since independence in 1957 that Barisan Nasional would be deprived of a two-thirds margin, and give the opposition a greater say in drafting crucial legislation.

Once parliament is dissolved, Mahathir has up to 60 days to hold polls. But elections, traditionally held on Saturdays, could be called less than two weeks after dissolution.

The prime minister still has a window of opportunity to hold polls on Nov. 27 or Dec. 4, analysts said. After that, the fasting month of Ramadhan starts, and polls would not normally be held in Muslim majority Malaysia then.

Hanging over Mahathir's head is his anticipated appearance in Anwar's sodomy trial.

Mahathir sacked Anwar in September 1998. The former deputy prime minister was arrested later that month and charged with corruption and sodomy, which he denies.

Anwar's downfall provoked unprecedented anti-government protests and his sacking and imprisonment have fanned discontent within the rank and file of Mahathir's United Malays National Organization (UMNO) as well.

The High Court has subpoenaed Mahathir to appear in the sex trial after Anwar, who has been on the stand for the past two weeks, and his co-defendant, Sukma Darmawan, finish testifying. Lawyers said Mahathir could take the stand any day now.

Mahathir has said he will only answer questions related to the alleged sodomy and not other matters -- an indication he would not address Anwar's allegations of corruption in the prime minister's cabinet.

Mahathir's testimony could have a crucial bearing on both the case and the political landscape as the nation readies for the polls.

The trial has proceeded in fits and starts over the past two weeks as Anwar, complaining of splitting headaches, has repeatedly had to seek treatment at a local hospital.

Mahathir last week accused his former protege, who is serving a six-year jail term for corruption, of inventing the headaches to win sympathy.

"The trial is dragging on and worrying the government. How can you have a general election when you are on the stand?" a political analyst said.

Mahathir, known for his outspoken ways, has revealed the depth of his concern in recent statements.

On Thursday, he said any accusations by UMNO members against Anwar must first be referred to him.

That move followed two public statements in the past two weeks that targeted Anwar but which could also open a Pandora's box of problems for UMNO leaders implicated in the accusations.

Last Friday, Mahathir said "lies and slander" by the opposition had to be checked or voters could "make an unwise decision and we will feel the effect in the general election".

A diplomat said: "This kind of statement shows Mahathir is really wondering if now is the best time for polls."

Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, Mahathir's former nemesis who has rejoined UMNO and is leading the party's fight in the key state of Kelantan, said in an interview with Asiaweek magazine published last week: "I think I need more time."