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Senior Malaysian Leader Warns of Hard-Line Party Gaining Strength - 2003-06-18

Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has warned of political uncertainty if an opposition Islamic party gains strength. The Mr. Abdullah also had tough words about the United States before Malaysia's ruling party starts its annual meeting.

The handpicked successor of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said infighting in the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, could create turmoil by allowing a hard-line Islamic party to gain power.

In a speech Wednesday ahead of UMNO's annual assembly, Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi also criticized United States foreign policy. He said it has reduced international affairs to "the law of the jungle" and said the new world order being created by Washington threatens Muslim countries.

Mr. Abdullah's speech is expected to set the tone for the 57th annual UMNO assembly, which opens Thursday. He generally echoes sentiments and warnings expressed by Prime Minister Mahathir.

Mr. Mahathir shocked Malaysians after he announced at last year's assembly that he would step down after 22 years. He is to leave office in October. Although he supports the U.S.-led war against terrorism, Mr. Mahathir has harshly criticized the war against Iraq.

K.S. Nathan, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said Mr. Abdullah is likely to soften his rhetoric once he becomes prime minister.

"I think the diplomatic style will be different. It certainly will not be in the manner in which Dr. Mahathir has asserted himself and perhaps sometimes has even been caustic in his remarks about the United States," Mr. Nathan said.

UMNO has led all of Malaysia's governments since independence from Britain in 1957. Mr. Mahathir is expected to warn at this year's assembly that disunity will provide an opportunity for the Islamic Party, or PAS, to gain strength.

PAS wants to create an Islamic state. Mr. Nathan, however, said the party has lost popularity. "UMNO has in a sense regained some of that lost ground by re-engineering itself and also by moving the economic development process forward and insuring, as well as assuring the non-Malay, non-Muslim communities that they would be quite fair in keeping Malaysia open and not converting it into an Islamic state in the way that PAS wants it to be," he said.

UMNO's annual assembly ends Saturday with a speech by Mr. Mahathir.