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Incoming Malaysian PM Faces Major Challenges - 2003-10-30

Sixty-three year-old Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is set to become the new prime minister of Malaysia Friday when Asia's longest serving leader, Mahathir Mohamed, steps down. The low-profile deputy prime minister faces major challenges as he takes the reins of power.

Fifteen years ago, Abdullah Badawi was nearly banished from Malaysia's political elite for supporting a rival of Prime Minister Mahathir. But in a resiliency not commonly seen in Malaysian politics, Mr. Badawi found his way back to power in 1991 - this time in Mr. Mahathir's camp.

It was a second power struggle that sealed Mr. Badawi's bright political future, when he supported Mr. Mahathir during a challenge by his then deputy - Anwar Ibrahim - in 1998. Anwar Ibrahim was removed from power and tried for corruption and sexual crimes. He remains in jail appealing his sentence on the grounds it was political.

Mr. Badawi found himself replacing Anwar Ibrahim as the second most powerful man in Malaysia, prepping to take over the leadership role from the long-serving and charismatic Mahathir Mohamad.

Mr. Badawi has solid political credentials. He has held the foreign, education and defense ministry portfolios. While he did not distinguish himself during those years, he did manage to avoid being tainted by corruption scandals - earning him the moniker "Mr. Clean". Analysts say it is Mr. Badawi's low-key and non-controversial style that has allowed him to survive politically and rise through the ranks.

Now Mr. Badawi faces the daunting task of filling the vacuum left after more than 20 years of rule by Mr. Mahathir. The current and future prime minister are very different men. Mr. Badawi is diplomatic and subtle where Mr. Mahathir is outspoken and sometimes brash. The first challenge Mr. Badawi faces is consolidating support for his leadership within the long-ruling United Malays National Organization, or UMNO.

Some analysts question if Mr. Badawi has the skills needed. Professor William Case, a Malaysian expert from Griffith University in Australia, says internal politics could be tricky for Mr. Badawi. "He lacks the personal forcefulness and charisma that Mahathir possesses and it maybe too that he doesn't have the utter ruthlessness that Mahathir did. Nor does he seems to have access to or knowledge about financial resources and how you might push patronage here and there, in the way that Mahathir understood so well," he says. "So he is not going to be able to, I think, manipulate factions and different sorts of groups within his party with nearly the skill that Mahathir possessed."

One thing that should help Mr. Badawi make a smooth transition, is the expectation that he has no plans to radically change Mr. Mahathir's overall policies. That should help get UMNO behind Mr. Bawadi - but it disappoints human rights activists, who want to see Malaysia's Internal Security Act abolished. This landmark law - which allows for long-detentions without trial - was used effectively against terrorism suspects is Malaysia. But critics say the law - which was in place long-before the specter of terrorism took primacy on the international stage - has been used to silence dissent and hobble UMNO's political challengers.

Mr. Badawi is also expected to continue promoting foreign investment-friendly policies to keep Malaysia on the path of economic development as the world's 17th largest trading nation. But he has indicated he wants to reform UMNO's cozy relationship with corporate Malaysia - which has been criticized for breeding corruption - and that is where he could run into trouble.

"Rivalry in UMNO is endemic," says Joseph Liow, a senior fellow of the Singapore-based research institution Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "If Badawi would try to do anything radical that would of course displease quite a number of elements or quarters within UMNO."

Mr. Badawi's true political test will come a year from now in the November 2004 general elections. His challenge then will come from the Islamic opposition party, PAS, which wants to replace the secular government with an Islamic one. PAS has already implemented this model in the two Malaysian states where it holds sway.

Some analysts say Mr. Badawi's scholarly Islamic background may make him more appealing to Muslims and allow UMNO to take votes from PAS.

"The Islamic opposition has personified all the problems in Malaysia under the Mahathir administration in Mahathir himself. And therefore, more often than not launched personal attacks against the prime minister," says Professor Liow. "Now with the credentials that he brings as a Muslim, Abdullah Badawi will not be such an easy target. The Islamic scholarly heritage that he comes from in his family and also the fact that so far, he is more or less recognized as "Mr. Clean" - there is less of that baggage involved. It would make it a bit more difficult for the Islamic opposition to discredit him."

Mr. Badawi has been preparing for his challenges. Since Mr. Mahathir announced his retirement last year, he has quietly taken over much of the day-to-day governing and made several official trips to neighboring countries. He will also be bolstered by the robust economy he is inheriting - which is expected to grow close to four percent this year.

But in the end, political analysts say Mr. Badawi's greatest test will be meeting the tremendous expectations of him to make his own mark in Malaysian history as the country's fifth prime minister.