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Malaysian Ruling Coalition Postpones Leadership Vote Until March

Malaysia's ruling party has postponed a crucial December election to choose its leaders. VOA correspondent Nancy-Amelia Collins in Jakarta has more.

The United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, the biggest party in the coalition that has ruled Malaysia since independence, announced Friday it would postpone its December leadership election until March.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declined to squash speculation the announcement meant he would step down from office, instead telling reporters the delay was meant to help smooth an early transition.

Abdullah had earlier announced he would hand power to his deputy Najib Razak in 2010 instead of the agreed 2012 after facing dissent from within his party and from opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.

Abdullah told reporters he would not make a final decision on whether or not to stay in power until October 9, when party members meet to start the nomination process. The elected UMNO president becomes the prime minister.

Anwar Ibrahim's opposition coalition won a third of parliament in the March elections - the first time the ruling party lost its majority since independence more than 50 years ago.

Since then the pressure has mounted for Abdullah to step down.

Anwar has repeatedly said he has enough defectors from the ruling coalition to topple the government, but several deadlines he gave have come and gone without results.

Political analyst Khoo Kay Peng says there are likely several reasons for the postponed elections.

"Definitely Abdullah cannot even handle having dissent within his party. Definitely it has partly to do with Anwar Ibrahim as well. I think a number of disgruntled members in UMNO perhaps would want to look at the outcome of the election before making their plan," said Khoo. "To go with Anwar or whether to stay with the coalition."

Khoo also says Abdullah may be biding his time by postponing the elections.

"Perhaps this will allow some of these people, who may be thinking of defecting - a chance to really decide once and for all," added Khoo. "So by postponing it to March, these people will have no choice but to hold their position until the March election and Abdullah is hoping that perhaps this will be a very good cooling period."

Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, was ousted from power more than 10 years ago after being imprisoned for sodomy - a crime in Malaysia - and corruption, charges he says were politically motivated.

Anwar is now fighting another charge of sodomy which he denies and says has been orchestrated by the government to keep him from taking power.