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Pressure Mounts on Malaysian Leader After Mahathir Resignation, But Ruling Party Remains Intact

  • Heda Bayron

Malaysia's ruling party has been thrown into turmoil after former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad abruptly resigned from the United Malays National Organization. Political analysts say the move was aimed at weakening embattled Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. But Heda Bayron reports from VOA's Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok, while factionalism exists, the party has, so far, remained intact.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has long publicly opposed his successor, Abdullah Badawi. Mr. Mahathir says he made a mistake in choosing Mr. Abdullah to take over in 2004, and calls on him to resign.

On Monday, Malaysia's longest serving leader shocked the country by resigning from UMNO, the party that has ruled Malaysia since independence more than half a century ago.

Mr. Abdullah has been under siege since UMNO lost its two-thirds majority in March elections, leaving it with about 63 percent of seats. That loss, the worst in UMNO's history, has been blamed on dissatisfaction with the government's failure to deliver on its promise of addressing poverty and eliminating corruption.

Mr. Mahathir still commands a great deal of respect in Malaysia and wields considerable power in UMNO. Many political analysts expected other UMNO members to follow him out of the party, but so far, few have done so.

William Case is an expert on Malaysian politics at the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong. He says following Mr. Mahathir would lead UMNO members into a political wilderness.

"UMNO is primarily a patronage machine," he said. "You go in there with the expectation that it is going to do something for your business prospects or bring rewards of other kinds…. What Dr. Mahathir is proposing is that people just go off and enter into a kind of limbo where they neither join the opposition nor members of the government. And that's not very attractive to most members of UMNO."

The lack of mass defections, however, does not lift the pressure on Prime Minister Abdullah to step down. Mr. Abdullah says he will not quit. But in December's UMNO general assembly, he will face internal challenges for the party leadership.

James Chin, a politics professor at Monash University in Malaysia, says Mr. Abdullah has to start delivering on his promises if he wants to remain in power.

"He needs to bring in the reforms that he promised the people of Malaysia in 2004," said Chin. "One of the reasons why he lost so badly in 2008 was because he didn't carry out any of the reforms. He need to clean up the party in terms of Mahathir supporters, he needs to isolate them and either force them out of the party or force them to support him."

The promised reforms include reducing rural poverty and fighting corruption in government and in the party. But Case in Hong Kong says the anti-corruption campaign has been a dilemma for the prime minister.

"When he tries to clean things up he becomes unpopular inside the party. But when he fails to do that, he becomes unpopular outside the party," said Case.

Outside the drama in UMNO stands a would-be prime minister: opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Some analysts such as Chin say that UMNO's problems only strengthen Anwar's bid to return to office.

"This is Anwar's best chance to be the next prime minister of Malaysia," said Chin.

Until 1998, Anwar was Malaysia's deputy prime minister and an UMNO star. But imprisonment for alleged corruption and sexual crimes derailed his political ambitions. His release from prison in 2004 paved the way for a comeback through his Keadilan party, with captured 82 seats in parliament in the last election.

Several political analysts expect that some UMNO members will defect to the opposition if it is clear that Anwar would end up as prime minister when parliament convenes in September.

In a year that has already brought rapid, unprecedented change in Malaysian politics, voters are confused about where the country is heading as its three best known leaders struggle for power.

For now, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak has signaled that UMNO moving on without its former leader.

On Wednesday, Razak announced somberly that the party has accepted Mr. Mahathir's resignation.

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