Malaysia’s Badawi Faces a Precarious Future

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Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is besieged by a brewing leadership crisis in his own political party in the wake of disaster at the polls in March. Not only is there a challenge from veteran politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, but at least two of the country’s normally apolitical sultans are in the mix. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file are demoralized by the magnitude of the loss, the biggest in the ruling coalition’s history.

With a razor-thin majority in the popular vote but with a majority in the national parliament of 140 out of 222 seats, Badawi’s biggest worry is strife within the United Malays National Organisation. But he also has to worry about the possibility of defections by MPs to the opposition coalition of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, the Democratic Action Party and the fundamentalist Parti Islam se-Malaysia.

According to local media, Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of Keadilan, has said lawmakers from the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak have already been in contact about switching sides.

Certainly UMNO has lost both confidence and credibility after five years under Badawi. The party is effectively split into two factions ‑ Badawi on one side and his erstwhile mentor, former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, on the other. Mahathir’s incessant criticism of his successor’s lackluster performance was partly responsible for Badawi's deteriorating popularity.

Malaysia’s hereditary sultans usually steer away from politics. They have now got involved. At least two are at loggerheads with the prime minister on the choice of menteri besar, or state chief ministers. The Sultan of Perlis has ignored Badawi’s choice and appointed his own. As the sultan has already sworn in his choice, that leaves Badawi appearing politically impotent. The Sultan of Terengganu, through his advisory council, also has rejected Badawi's choice of chief minister in favor of another candidate. The sultan is now the Agong, or king, the titular supreme ruler under the constitutional rotating monarchy, which changes hands every five years.

In the latest development, Ahmad Said, who was appointed chief minister by the Sultan of Terengganu, has been sacked from UMNO for accepting the job. Badawi has issued instructions to all UMNO assemblymen not to attend the swearing in, warning them of disciplinary action if they do, setting up a showdown with the Terengannu royal house and the constitutional monarchy. The 21 Terengganu assemblymen, headed by Datuk Rosol Wahid, have agreed not to boycott the swearing in ceremony, meaning more trouble for the besieged prime minister.

In addition, Mahathir is relentlessly pursuing his "remove Badawi" campaign, as he has since the day Badawi cancelled the so-called crooked bridge, a Mahathir project then near implementation that was to replace the causeway from Johor to Singapore in the hope that ships would bypass Singapore's ports and use the Malaysian port in the Johore Strait. For obvious reasons, the Singapore government was not keen on the project. Mahathir, who had a long-term ambivalent relationship with the island state, saw Badawi's action as kowtowing to Singapore.

Badawi has sought to answer Mahathir’s challenge by sacking old guard leaders associated with the former prime minister. Other Mahathir stalwarts lost their seats in the electoral rout.

After chopping the overstuffed cabinet from 90 ministers to 65, the prime minister has brought in some new faces, including in particular Zaid Ibrahim as minister in the prime minister’s department and de facto law minister. He is expected to attempt a clean-up of the scandal-ridden judiciary in the wake of a huge flap over a videotape made public last year purporting to show a well-connected lawyer brokering judicial appointments. But Badawi has also added Muhammed Muhammed Taib, a veteran politician who was forced to resign as Selangor State chief minister after being caught attempting to take US$750,000 in undeclared cash out of Australia and into New Zealand in 1996.

Razaleigh, the prospective challenger to Badawi, has indicated he will push for an emergency general meeting to discuss the party’s poor performance at the polls – if that fails, he may take on Badawi at the forthcoming UMNO assembly in August.

Then there is the most likely challenger, Najib Tun Razak, the deputy prime minister. He has been the party’s most energetic organizer and, in the eyes of his critics, its biggest bagman, raising billions of dollars through contracts as defense minister. He has been hampered, however, by undercurrents over his role, if any, in the gruesome murder in 2006 of Altantuya Shaariibuu, a Mongolian translator whose body was found in a forested Kuala Lumpur suburb. Najib’s best friend, Abdul Razak Baginda, is on trial for the murder along with two of Najib’s bodyguards. Altantuya, who had an affair with Razak Baginda, may have served as a translator for a dubious purchase of French submarines when Najib was defense minister.

So far Najib has not made a public move against Badawi, and Mahathir sprang a surprise when he announced his full support for an emergency general meeting in which Razaleigh, his former opponent, is expected to challenge Abdullah -- although Mahathir said he believes Razaleigh has little chance. As long as Badawi continues to hand out rewards to party leaders, Razaleigh is unlikely to succeed in his attempt to push through an emergency general meeting.

Some of the most vocal criticism against Razaleigh's intentions came from fiery Education Minister Hishamuddin Onn, whose racialist rhetoric has been one of the major elements driving Chinese and Indians voters away from the ruling coalition, saying he believes now is not the right time to go after the prime minister. At UMNO general assemblies in 2005 and 2006, Hishamuddin brandished the keris, a curved sword that remains a potent Malay symbol. Hishamuddin’s wielding of the keris at the UMNO podium actually helped the opposition to gather more votes.

Others who have come out against Razaleigh include former Trade and Industry Minister Rafidah Aziz, UMNO Secretary-General Tengku Adnan Tenku Mansor, and UMNO Vice President Mohd Ali Rustam, which doesn't necessarily reflect the majority opinion of UMNO members. It is difficult to gauge the wishes of the rank and file but the likelihood that they will turn against Badawi at the August general assembly is pretty high.

Hantu Laut is the pen name of a Malaysian blogger. The blog is here.