Malaysia Faces a Succession Crisis

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Photo from promahathir.blogspot.com/

With Malaysia’s political environment degenerating into something resembling a food fight, and with protesters in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has reiterated his intention to step down at the “right time” to make way for his deputy prime minister, Najib Tun Razak.

“It's important for everyone to see the relationship between me and Najib as very crucial to strengthen UMNO (United Malays National Organization, the largest ethnic political party, which Badawi leads) and the government and to implement the development projects and programmes that have been planned. The leadership change will definitely take place at the right time,“ he told local media.

A spate of accusations and name-calling and backbiting, particularly between the Badawi forces and those of the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohammad, has virtually stalled the government since disastrous elections for the national front, or Barisan Nasional, on March 8. The latest developments include a June 5 accusation by Ian Chin, a high court judge and presumed surrogate of Badawi’s, who was quoted in several of the nation’s Barisan-linked newspapers renewing accusations against Mahathir of corrupting the judicial process by making a “thinly veiled threat” that judges could be removed from the bench for delivering judgments he didn’t like. Publication of such charges in the government-linked newspapers is improbable without explicit permission.

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Photo from chedet.com

In return, Mahathir, who in May loudly resigned from the party he had headed for 22 years, not only printed the accusations against him on his own weblog, www.chedet.com, but fired back with a wide range of corruption charges against Badawi, including accusations against the prime minister’s son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, who controls Scomi Group, for profiteering by overbuying buses for Kuala Lumpur’s transport system. In the meantime, the onetime finance minister, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has announced his intention to go after the premiership himself, held a press conference Saturday to say he had the backing of the state of Sabah in his quest to become prime minister.

All of this has been complicated by a painful decision last week to cut long-running fuel subsidies, resulting in a 41 percent increase in the price of fuel, which enraged Malaysia’s motoring public. On Saturday, as many as 2,000 protesters marched through Kuala Lumpur, causing massive traffic jams while chanting “Down with the National Front” and demanding Badawi’s resignation. From the sidelines, Anwar has been firing away with promises to cut fuel prices if he takes power, which might be politically advantageous but would be economically disastrous.

The country, already battling inflation that is expected to jump from around 2 percent to 5 percent this month, a new 10-year high, and judicial corruption, now faces a succession crisis. Many analysts believe Najib is far from an ideal or even practical choice. Besides allegations of corruption, he is tainted by the gruesome murder of a 28-year-old female Mongolian translator, Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was shot before being blown up with military grade explosives in a jungle just outside Kuala Lumpur. One of his closest friends and his advisor, Abdul Razak Baginda, 48, has been charged with abetting the murder along with two Special Action Force officers, who are also Najib's bodyguards, who have been charged for the murder. All three face the death penalty if convicted.

The trial, which opened a full year ago, seemed at the start to be a relatively open-and-shut case. But it has droned on month after month, seemingly with no conclusion in sight, raising suspicions that it is deliberately being delayed to allow public indignation to die down in preparation for a verdict that would let the three off the hook. The case is tinged with overtones of the possible involvement of political figures at the very top of the national power structure. Altantuya had flown to Malaysia to confront Abdul Razak Baginda, the of a local political think tank, to demand as much as US$500,000 from him after he had jilted her following a whirlwind romance in Hong Kong, Paris and other cities, during which he acknowledged that he had already given her tens of thousands of US dollars.

In an affidavit submitted last December just before the start of the trial, Baginda said he contacted Musa Safri, Najib's aide de camp, to deal with Altantuya. Musa subsequently introduced Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri, 30, one of the accused, to Baginda. But despite Baginda’s assertions, Musa has been neither questioned nor called as a witness, nor has Najib been questioned. The trial seemingly has been designed by both prosecution and defense to exclude every mention of the two despite multiple questions over their possible involvement.

Yet while Najib's political future seems uncertain, within UMNO capable leaders are few and far between, what’s more one finding one who is fit to be prime minister. The current political, social and economics problems have given a major boost to the improbable aspirations of the 70-year-old Razaleigh, the politician prince and former finance minister who was once an UMNO rising star and perennial bidder for its presidency. As the party that leads the Barisan, its president automatically gets the country's top job. In Razaleigh's last bid in 2004, he received only one nomination out of the required 60 or 30 percent of 193 divisions, and too from his own division, Gua Musang in the northern state of Kelantan.

In the meantime, in addition to offering to cut fuel prices, since the March election Anwar has been talking to anybody who would listen about Barisan lawmakers defecting to his own coalition, snatching federal power and possibly crowning himself as prime minister. He needs about 30 lawmakers to form the new government with a simple majority. He has set September 16, the date which Malaysia was formed, as “doomsday” for the Barisan. Right now, however, he can't be prime minister even if Pakatan Rakyat takes over as he has yet to contest for a parliamentary seat in a by-election although he has been eligible since April 15. To placate disgruntled East Malaysian lawmakers, who are rumored to be the most likely to abandon the sinking Barisan ship, Badawi has visited Sabah and Sarawak and offered a slew of goodies from an increased development budget to governance autonomy to a RM15,000 (US$4,576 ) monthly allowance for lawmakers to travel by helicopter into the hard-to-reach interior.

Historically, it has been impossible for a politician to become prime minister outside UMNO. But Anwar has defied history so far with a comeback from his arrest and imprisonment on charges of sexual perversion and corruption after being fired as deputy prime minister and finance minister by Mahathir in 1998. He ultimately served six years in prison on the charges, which were criticized by human rights groups worldwide as being trumped up. The sexual perversion charges were overturned by the courts in 2004, after Mahathir left office, although the corruption charges were not.

Some political analysts in Kuala Lumpur suggest that maneuvering behind the scenes is paving the way for Anwar’s return to the party. However, in doing so, he risks losing the support of hardcore opposition voters of Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), the fundamentalist Islamic party, and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the multiracial but predominantly Chinese party. Yet, he may still be safe as the biggest swing in the election came from non-Malay voters who are less loyal to political parties and more sensitive to issues.

Anwar's potential return to the BARISAN fold has been met with strong protests as many leaders, even those in component parties within the coalition, have openly attacked him after his violent sacking in 1998 and during the campaign in the recent election. Most observers feel that Anwar's biggest obstacle is Mahathir – the two hate each other. In the early 1980s, Mahathir plucked Anwar from the opposition wilderness and fast-tracked him on the route to the premiership. Anwar has claimed that he fell out with his mentor over “policy” for bowing to the demands of the International Monetary Fund that further crippled the economy at the height of the Asian financial crisis from 1997 to 1998.

All this political turmoil has thrown the economy into disarray. Coupled with the removal of the energy subsidies last week and the ailing world economy, the broad-based Kuala Lumpur Composite Index tumbled as much as 3 percent following the abolishment of the subsidies before closing at 1,223.56 points, dropping 2.36 percent or 29.56 points. The index closed at 1,229.35 on Friday, down about 18 percent from a high of over 1,500 at the start of the year.

The country's next prime minister will have his hands full maintaining social stability. In the past week, pockets of street protests broke out throughout the country sparked by the fuel price hike and inflation. The largest so far was in the heart of Malay Kuala Lumpur, in which about 2,000 mostly ethnic Malays, the hardest hit, gathered after Friday prayers. More demonstrations are being planned.

The People's Anti-Oil Manipulation Movement (Geramm — Malay for 'seething frustration or anger“), a new non-governmental organization formed to protest the fuel price increase, is organizing a mammoth demonstration that hopes to attract one million people at the park just below the gleaming Petronas Twin Towers in the Kuala Lumpur City Centre on July 5.

Malaysia, it seems, is slowly descending towards political bedlam.