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Malaysian Election Campaign Enters Final Stage Before Sunday Vote - 2004-03-19

In Malaysia, national election campaigns are entering their final stretch prior to Sunday's vote. Candidates for parliament and the state assemblies are staging their final flurry of rallies.

As the campaign entered its final 24 hours, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi held rallies in the northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu, which are controlled by the opposition Islamic Party, known as PAS.

Mr. Abdullah told supporters that his United Malays National Organization, UMNO, will devote more attention to the plight of the rural poor. He did not mention PAS, which has advocated similar economic policies since taking control of the state government in 1999.

The national leader of PAS and chief minister of Terengganu, Abdul Hadi Awang, has also been campaigning actively in the region.

Mr. Abdul says a major goal of his government is establishing new markets to facilitate trade among local producers.

The fiercest contest is for the votes of ethnic Malay Muslims, who make up 60 percent of Malaysia's population and are the political base of both PAS and UMNO. PAS, which advocates an Islamic state in Malaysia, made inroads into UMNO's overwhelming majority in the last election. It won 27 seats in parliament and became Malaysia's leading opposition party.

The head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Institute, Abdul Razak Baginda, says he believes that UMNO is recovering support it lost among Muslim voters. This is because of the new leadership of Mr. Abdullah, who took over the premiership from Mahathir Mohamad when he retired last year.

Mr. Abdullah, who has a degree in Islamic studies, advocates what he calls a tolerant form of Islam.

"The divide between PAS, the Islamic Party, and Abdulah Badawi's leadership seems to be narrowed because the Islamic argument has also been put forth by the ruling party," he said.

But University of Malaya Professor Edmond Terrence Gomez says UMNO lost the support of rural Muslims not because of religion, but because of its economic policies, which helped big industry and neglected farmers, fishermen and small enterprises.

"UMNO has not responded adequately to the needs of rural Malays," said Professor Gomez. "I do not think enough has been done by the UMNO government to secure back rural Malay support."

Professor Gomez says, however, that UMNO's slide among rural Malay voters has been offset by PAS's announcement last year that it would install an Islamic state in Malaysia, if it came to power. He says this hurt the party's image among urban Muslims and alienated non-Muslims, who make up more than one third of the population.