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Malaysia's PM Badawi is Sworn In - 2004-03-22

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi was sworn into office Monday, one day after voters delivered a resounding endorsement to his National Front alliance. The alliance of 14 parties won all but a handful of seats in the federal parliament and is set to dominate the country's 13 state governments.

Prime Minister Abdulla Badawi took the oath of office Monday, as political experts admitted they were taken aback by the overwhelming popular endorsement he received, four months after taking over from veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad.

International Islamic University Professor, Abdul Rashid Moten, said the victory, which he compared to an avalanche rather than a landslide, was due in part to Mr. Abdullah's commitment to combat corruption and pursue development policies that help the poor.

"Most importantly, it was his personality, which was interpreted by the public as an Islamic personality, whereby he was very calm, quiet," he said.

Professor Moten says that Mr. Abdullah projected himself as a religious person but one who believes in tolerance and modernization. This resonated among Malay Muslims who make up 60 percent of the population.

Professor Moten says that this image contrasted with that of the opposition Islamic Party, PAS, which scored major gains in the last elections, but suffered a serious setback on Sunday.

"PAS gave the impression of being highly dogmatic, literalist, uncompromising," said Professor Moten. "I think that was their undoing."

However, a professor at the National University of Malaya, Edmund Terrence Gomez, says the vote shows PAS's rise to prominence five years ago was mainly due to dissatisfaction with the governing United Malays National Organization, UMNO, under Mahathir Mohamad.

"This election results clearly indicates that PAS's ascendancy has only been due to the fact that it was a protest vote from among the Malay electorate with regards to UMNO," he said.

The professor notes that the fate of other opposition parties varied according to their relationship with PAS. He says the opposition Chinese party, DAP, fared better because it abandoned the opposition alliance led by PAS. And he says that the Justice party of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was disgraced and jailed following a challenge to Mr. Mahathir six years ago, was defeated because it remained in the alliance, even after PAS announced it would seek an Islamic state in Malaysia.

Professor Gomez says UMNO's electoral sweep shows that the Malay heartland is giving Mr. Abdullah a chance to carry out his reforms. But he notes that the margins of victory were slim in many districts and he says this should be a warning to the prime minister.

"If he [Abdullah] does not deliver on these votes, I think we can safely say, in the next general election there will be a swing back to the opposition," said Mr. Gomez.

Professor Gomez says the electorate is changing and a younger generation is rising. As a result, he believes the parties need to re-organize themselves along non-racial, non-religious lines, if they wish to remain relevant.