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Malaysia's Ruling Party Meets Amid Leaders' Feud


Malaysia's ruling party is holding its annual assembly amid a bitter dispute between Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi and his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. The meeting could reveal whether the spat has damaged Mr. Abdullah's standing within the party.

The confrontation that could have materialized at the annual assembly of the United Malays National Organization will probably not occur because Mr. Mahathir, who is recovering from a mild heart attack, is not expected to attend.

For nearly a year, Mr. Mahathir has been waging a furious campaign against the man he hand-picked to succeed him as Malaysia's leader. He accuses Mr. Abdullah of corruption, nepotism and mismanagement of the economy.

Mr. Abdullah has strenuously denied Mr. Mahathir's charges. But the Mahathir campaign has created uncertainty within the long-ruling party, the dominant political group representing the country's majority ethnic Malays, and within the country at large.

Analysts had hoped that Mr. Mahathir's presence at the meeting would indicate how much influence he has among party leaders even though he stepped down in 2003 after 22 years in office. But they also say that, despite public pledges of support from most leaders for Mr. Abdullah, Mr. Mahathir's fierce attacks have raised questions about the prime minister's leadership.

William Case, who heads the Southeast Asia Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong, says the greater freedom Mr. Abdullah has allowed in debates at the assembly should indicate the level of his popularity within UMNO.

Case says Mr. Mahathir's allegations of corruption and economic mismanagement may have hurt Mr. Abdullah.

"We have long, of course, much respected Abdullah Badawi as Mr. Clean," said Case. "That was his image, the source of his attractiveness. I think that some of the mud that Mahathir has thrown at Abdullah Badawi over this has in fact stuck."

"And the other major criticism is that the current prime minister is not managing the economy effectively," he continued. "There is widespread fear in Malaysia that the economy is not getting the direction and impetus that it needs, the kind of political direction that Mahathir always used to provide."

Mr. Abdullah insists he will stay on in Malaysia's top job despite Mr. Mahathir's campaign to oust him. He says he needs more than a single term in office to see several projects through to fruition. The next election is not due until 2009, but Mr. Abdullah is expected to seek a fresh mandate as early as a year from now.

Mr. Mahathir has indicated that he has no plans to give up his steady stream of criticism of Mr. Abdullah and his government.