Thu, 26 Jun 2003

Worries loom as Mahathir quits

Baradan Kuppusamy, Inter Press Service, Kuala Lumpur

Behind the praise and euphoria that attended Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's final appearance before the ruling party he had led for 22 years lurks general disquiet over the country's future and keen anticipation of a political realignment after his era.

Both these tendencies could shake voter confidence in the ruling elite ahead of general elections expected to be held early next year, months after Mahathir retires as prime minister and leader of the political party United Malays Nationalist Organization (UMNO) in October.

Mahathir would leave behind a power vacuum, a disoriented bureaucracy and a Malay ruling elite that is edgy as they maneuver to find a place in the post-Mahathir political order.

The jockeying for power is made all the worse by a politically weak successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, whose control over UMNO remains untested but one who, as the incumbent deputy prime minister, enjoys the power of legitimacy -- until challenged.

For now, there is no doubt that Abdullah will be prime minister, bringing to fruition a succession process that has been foiled several times before. But his choice of running mate from among three powerful party vice presidents is a hotly contested and divisive issue.

"This is a issue that is bound to cause ruptures in UMNO," Dr P Ramasamy of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia said in an interview.

Under the show of unity last week, there are strong undercurrents of dissatisfaction over the succession issue in the party of three million members that was founded in 1946.

Ironically, it was under Mahathir's 22-year rule that the party suffered some of its worst internal crises. The first occurred in 1989, when a court declared the party an illegal entity after a major succession battle a year earlier that Mahathir won.

In 1998, thousands of members left after Mahathir, fearing a political challenge from his handpicked successor at the time, Anwar Ibrahim, sacked him.

At the three-day party assembly last week, Mahathir wrangled a public promise from the three vice presidents -- Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak, Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and former chief minister Muhammad Taib -- that they would not question nor challenge Abdullah's choice as running mate.

Mahathir himself had said he feared a power struggle after he leaves. "I am really concerned because we have yet to understand the ethics of contest."

More than anybody else in UMNO, Mahathir, who had to fend off repeated challenges to his authority, should know that the political promises he got are easily abandoned. "Just look at the history of UMNO -- it is full of fights and breakaway factions," a former party leader said. "Abdullah will have his hands full."

"Holding UMNO together will be Abdullah's greatest challenge yet, for everything else depends on it. The real question that should be asked by any cynical but concerned observer is: How long can he last?" said former member of parliament Sim Kwang Yang.

For now, there is a high regard and respect that borders on adulation for Mahathir, who had turned this country of 25 million people into a respected, cosmopolitan Islamic state with impressive economic achievements, superb infrastructure and a highly literate society.

But critics dismiss that success and say that economic success has come with a heavy price -- the loss of democratic space, a supine media and near-zero tolerance for dissent and continued detention without trial.

Abdullah was vice president in 1998 when Mahathir sacked Anwar, in what his camp calls a conspiracy to undercut him after the two had a falling out. After Anwar was convicted of corruption and sodomy, Mahathir appointed Abdullah as his deputy and persuaded the party to endorse his choice without calling for open elections.

It had been a fast but untested climb for Abdullah, now that he is also to be UMNO president. A former technocrat turned education minister who was put in cold storage for three years and eight months after he and others opposed Mahathir in 1988, Abdullah also enjoys Islamic credentials but his real strength is his image as the "Mr Clean" of Malaysian politics.

Many hope Abdullah would be more gentle, less intolerant and more accommodating.

His first test would likely be the plight of Anwar Ibrahim, now that Mahathir has announced that any reconciliation with Anwar has to come from his successors and only after he leaves. The 'problem' of Anwar needs a solution before UMNO faces Malay voters again.

After all, Anwar's continued incarceration still rankles the Malays and deeply damages the government's standing before the Malay electorate. Anger over his plight was a key reason why nearly 65 percent of Malay Muslims voted against the government and for the opposition PAS party, in the 1999 general election.

A reconciliation with Anwar would be welcomed both by domestic opponents and international critics. It would also undercut opposition charges of political victimization and remove one of the vestiges of Mahathir's rule that has angered Malay voters.

"Will Abdullah release Anwar Ibrahim and thus seek to reinvent the ideology of Malay unity by working toward reconciling the newly emergent forces within the Malay community?" asked Sim.

Anwar has completed a six-year sentence for corruption. His appeal against a nine-year sentence for sodomy is before the country's highest court, and his application for bail will be heard on July 14.

However, Anwar's supporters have little faith in the court and in Abdullah. "However you look at UMNO, one sees a tired, listless, political machine where the vibrancy comes in staged performances," said political commentator M G G Pillai.

"It is a show for the world," he said, referring to last week's party assembly. "There is no discussion on issues and what caused the alienation (among Malays) and how it should be removed. They did not discuss Anwar at all.