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Malaysian Campaigning Intensifies Ahead of National Elections - 2004-03-16


In Malaysia, campaigning is intensifying ahead of next Sunday's national elections. The ruling National Front alliance has already won at least 14 parliament seats by default, but in some districts the races are intense.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned his supporters against over-confidence even though his coalition is assured of more than five percent of the seats in parliament because several opposition candidates have dropped out of the race.

The prime minister Tuesday moved his campaign to northern Malaysia, a major battleground between his National Front coalition of 14 parties and the leading opposition Islamic Party, known as PAS. Mr. Abdullah told supporters the National Front will implement all the policies and programs to develop the region that he has proposed.

The National Front, which is dominated by Mr. Abdullah's United Malays National Organization, UMNO, seeks to wrest control of the northwestern states of Kelantan and Terrengganu from PAS.

PAS leaders plan to hold on to these states and hope to win two other northeastern states, Kedah and Perlis. PAS, which advocates an Islamic state in Malaysia, has built a constituency among devout Malay Muslims. UMNO's main power base is the Malay Muslim community, which makes up 60 percent of the country's population.

The head of Malaysia's Strategic Research Center, Abdul Razak Baginda, said that to ward off the PAS threat, UMNO has tried to portray the opposition as a party of ideologues. "The government has tried to make the case of late that we moderate Muslims, which are the majority in the world, including Malaysia, have to reject extreme forms of Islam. And PAS, like it or not, does tend to lean more toward extremism forms," he said.

He added that UMNO's position has been strengthened by the prime minister's credentials as an Islamic scholar. UMNO also hopes to benefit from Mr. Abdullah's popularity since he took over last year from Malaysia's long-time leader, Mahathir Mohamad.

However, Professor Edmond Terrence Gomez of the University of Malaya, said UMNO's loss of support in has less to do with religion, and is more a result of the poverty and marginalization of rural residents, who are predominantly Malay Muslims.

But he said the Islamic Party has lost considerable support among middle-class urban voters since a series of global terrorist attacks began in September 2001. "The opposition has disintegrated post-September 11. That is mainly because the Islamic party has made it manifestly clear that it intends to promote its Islamic state ideology," he said.

PAS's declaration that it would seek an Islamic state has caused concern among ethnic Chinese and Indian Malaysians, who are economically powerful minority groups.

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