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Malaysian Political Picture Begins to Clear - 2002-06-25

Malaysian politics are expected to become clearer later Tuesday when the United Malays National Organization announces plans for Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to eventually step aside. Analysts expect Mr. Mahathir to stay in office until late 2003.

Political observers say the plan will have Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad lead the government into the next election. The election is expected early next year, 12 months ahead of schedule.

Mr. Mahathir threw Malaysian politics into confusion Saturday when he announced he was resigning his leadership of the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, and the governing National Front coalition. Senior UMNO leaders later persuaded the 76-year-old Mr. Mahathir to stay on.

Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is to explain the plan later Tuesday on television. News reports say the plan includes having Mr. Abdullah succeed Mr. Mahathir.

Party sources say the plan is a compromise, balancing UMNO's need for Mr. Mahathir to stay on, and his desire to step down. He has been prime minister for 21 years.

Mr. Mahathir has been riding a wave of strong support since the September 11 terror attacks in the United States. The opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) lost favor among middle-class Muslim voters because of its calls to introduce the strict hudud penal code of Muslim law.

Mr. Mahathir, widely seen as a moderate Muslim leader, has called on ethnic Malays to reject hard-line Islamic teachings.

Abdul Rashid Moten is a political science professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia. He expects UMNO to go into the next elections with greater strength than it did in the 1999 vote. "After 1999 UMNO has gained a lot of ground and as you can see there have been many by-elections and UMNO has been winning those by-elections with a huge margin," he said. "And even opposition parties are claiming they are in a very bad shape."

UMNO's share of the vote shrank in 1999. Voters turned against the party after Mr. Mahathir ousted his popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, in 1998. Mr. Anwar has since been convicted of corruption and sexual misbehavior charges, and is serving a 15-year prison sentence. He contends the charges were trumped up.