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Infighting Expected as Malaysia Prepares for New Prime Minister - 2003-06-20

Malaysia's annual general assembly of the ruling United Malays National Organization left off Friday with all the delegates guessing about who will win the second most important job in the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi says he will wait until Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retires in October before naming his own successor, the person who will fill the second most powerful position in the country.

Mr. Mahathir, anointed Mr. Abdullah to succeed him when he announced his retirement last year. Defense Minister Najib Razak and Domestic Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin are considered the top two candidates for the Number Two post.

During the opening speech of the assembly, Mr. Mahathir warned his party, the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, against infighting, saying unity is essential for order when he steps down in October.

But Khalid Jaafa, director of the independent Institute for Policy Research in Kuala Lumpur, says he expects fierce fighting over the job, but that the fight will happen behind closed doors.

"I think the Number Two position is very influential and very powerful. That's going to affect a lot of players within UMNO. I believe it is going to be a heavily contested position."

UMNO has formed the core of every government in Malaysia since its independence from Britain in 1957.

Mr. Khalid says a smooth transition from the 22-year rule of Mr. Mahathir to Mr. Abdullah is expected, and although most believe Mr. Abdullah will carry on Mr. Mahathir's policies, there may be more room for opposition voices.

"Because Mahathir has a lot of success behind him, in one way or another, despite his authoritarianism, people weigh his contribution for the country. But the new set of leaders will at least have new ideas in shaping new policies and their position in international affairs. So, in that sense, opposition will be in a much better position to assert their ideas, and also their policies, to the public."

Mr. Mahathir is credited with bringing his country forward and giving it a measure of economic success, but his detractors say his authoritarian 22-year rule has left no space for democracy.