Malaysia’s Premier Badawi Buys Some Time

Although Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has finally announced he will step down from Malaysia’s premiership in the middle of 2010 in favor of his scandal-scarred deputy, Najib Tun Razak, the announcement actually extends Badawi’s projected time in office over what was expected in the wake of disastrous March 8 national elections that appeared about to end his political career.

In recent weeks, the National Front, or Barisan Nasional, has struggled to stay afloat after losing its 50-year grip on a two-thirds majority in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament. It also lost five states and the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur to Pakatan Rakyat, or Peoples' Alliance, led by former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim.

But today, Badawi’s hold on power has been strengthened by the fact that there appear to be no viable alternatives to him. The Pakatan Rakyat is riven with dissention between three vastly dissimilar parties whose cultural dissonances were no more dramatically pointed up than in a July 6 rally when a young Malay musician named Alak, playing a ribald rock song called “Jilat,” (Lick) mooned the audience. At that point, enraged members of PAS, the fundamentalist Islamic party in the coalition, started beating him and pelting him with bottles. He had to be rescued by police.

That isn’t to say Badawi is home free. The announcement of his departure buys him time more than anything. On July 13, leaders of the Sabah Progressive Party, a splinter party in the Barisan, intend to bring a long-anticipated no-confidence vote in the parliament. While the vote is likely to fail, it can be expected to weaken him. Also, branch elections in the United Malays National Organisation, Badawi’s party and the leading ethnic party in the coalition, and he faces trouble at the grassroots. There are party stalwarts aligned with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who would like to see him out immediately.

Within UMNO, Najib himself has been scarred badly by allegations of his purported role and that of his wife in the gruesome murder of 28-year-old Altantuya Shariibuu. In October 2006, the Mongolian translator was shot before being blown to bits with military grade explosives in a jungle just outside Kuala Lumpur. Despite being named as his successor by Badawi, most political observers in Kuala Lumpur believe Najib is so badly tainted by the murder and other allegations of corruption that it would be difficult for him to become prime minister. Nonetheless, Najib pronounced himself “touched” by Badawi’s announcement.

On July 1, P. Balasubramaniam, a private investigator who once represented one of Altantuya’s accused murderers, the well-connected political analyst Abdul Razak Baginda, filed a statutory declaration with a Kuala Lumpur court, charging that Najib not only knew the murdered woman but had an affair with her, was involved in her disappearance and introduced her to Abdul Razak Baginda. After a conversation with an assistant superintendent of police, Balasubramaniam retracted the entire contents of his sworn statement in another statutory declaration signed in the law offices of the federal territory minister’s brother the next day and has since fled the country.

Temporarily at least, the main beneficiary of the political turbulence that started pretty much since Anwar returned to active politics at the end of 2006 is probably Badawi. Upcoming UMNO internal elections were thought to be a test of his staying power, and many observers expected him to be forced to step down. But although he is widely perceived as a weak and inattentive leader, there are no real challengers in UMNO, or from the opposition besides Anwar. And, with fresh allegations of sodomy made against him, Anwar is once again defending himself with typical high drama.

Almost immediately after the report was made, Anwar made a dash for the Turkish Embassy, claiming that his life was under threat, and only came out after the government, Badawi included, assured him of his safety. Anwar has since filed a civil suit and made a formal complaint in the shariah court against the former aide, Saiful Bukhari Azlan, 23. Anwar was due to make a statement on the sodomy charge to police July 13.

In an immediate response to Badawi's announcement, Mahathir again demanded Badawi's immediate resignation to "save UMNO and the BN" as he has virtually since Badawi followed him into office. He insists that with Badawi continuing to stay at the helm, the grassroots will not vote for the party.

"An UMNO and a BN (Barisan) that don't care about public opinion will be discarded. Only an UMNO and BN that caters to the needs and priorities of the people will be safe. The wish of the majority of the people is Dato Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi resigns. Ponder. Think," Mahathir wrote in his blog, chedet.com.

Putting a concrete date to the handover may have also dashed, once again, the hopes of the perennial contestant for the UMNO presidency, and hence the premiership, Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, 72, who said he still plans to challenge Badawi for the top job in the party elections in December.

"This handover thing is unconstitutional and it is not something that should be passed down from one leader to another. The matter of Umno's presidency and in turn, Malaysia's prime ministership, should be endorsed by the grassroots," Razaleigh told local media.

"I think my chances are better after this announcement. Initially, Najib's supporters wanted him to run for president but now that he has voiced his intention to stay as deputy, they will pick me instead of Pak Lah (Badawi)," he added.

At the same time, the Pakatan coalition that saw the unlikely amalgam of the fundamentalist Islamic party, Parti Se-Islam Malaysia (PAS), and the mostly Chinese but multi-racial Democratic Action Party (DAP) with Anwar's People's Justice Party (PKR) sitting in the middle is falling apart.

Both PAS and DAP appear unwilling to compromise further their opposing ideologies to govern the states in which they now hold power. PAS had previously dropped its overt Islamic agenda and repackaged it as a "social welfare state" in the general election. DAP, meanwhile, had looked the other way even as party members talked about defending the Chinese from Islamisation in their mostly Chinese-language political rallies.

The reality of governance, however, has brought back to the surface the jarring ideological differences. In Perak, the state in which DAP has the most state legislators, a PAS lawmaker was appointed as Chief Minister. In Selangor, the nation's most prosperous multi-racial state, PAS has protested against rock concerts in a recent football match organised by the sultan.

PAS president Hadi Awang has now acknowledged admitted that the party is holding talks with UMNO to "bring the message of Islam" to the latter. In a press conference on July 8, a visibly irate Hadi grated that PAS was the biggest party in Pakatan and its supporters did the most work in the general election and it should be treated with respect. "Therefore, after winning (the general election) the role of PAS supporters has to be taken into account. Because PAS is not stupid! Don't sideline us after winning the general election," he told Harakah, the party's newsletter.

PAS supporters are also feeling uneasy about working with PKR, which they see as no different from UMNO. "Some PKR people are from UMNO. Also they behave like UMNO. Both are evil, so it's a matter of choosing between the two," a grassroots leader in Kelantan told Asia Sentinel.

The Pakatan state government in Selangor has also come under fire. The Chief Minister, Khalid Ibrahim, a close friend of Anwar since boarding school in the prestigious Malay College Kuala Kangsar, is coming under attack for his delayed and almost indifferent reaction to a fracas that broke out between residents and a highway concessionaire who had illegally blocked an access road. To top it off, some of his assistants in the state government have resigned amid allegations of corruption. The public is also dismayed that local appointed concillors are Pakatan cronies, a far cry from the coalition's promise to introduce local government elections when it first came to power and to fight nepotism.