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This is Reuters take on our elections.

Malaysian polls: anything possible, except new government

Thu Feb 14, 2008 2:03am EST

By Mark Bendeich

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s March 8 election is likely to shape the course of economic and social policy over the next five years, even if it doesn’t deliver a new government.

The ruling coalition has governed in various forms since independence in 1957, telling voters it is the only group that represents all major races and can keep the peace between them.

The Barisan Nasional coalition portrays opposition parties are racially divided and a threat to stability, but even the opposition admits it is too weak to challenge for power.

Instead, elections boil down to a battle over public policy and reputations, but there can still be a surprising number of political casualties.

Here are some possible scenarios.

THE PM’S WORST NIGHTMARE

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi wakes up on the morning after the vote to discover that he is still in office but he has failed to secure a two-thirds majority in federal parliament, the first time the coalition has failed to do this since 1969.

Worse, he has lost Terengganu, the biggest oil producing state, to the opposition Islamist party, PAS, which also held onto neighboring Kelantan state despite a concerted coalition campaign to win it back.

This is as bad as it could conceivably get for the coalition, and Abdullah’s leadership would be under threat. The main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), might then turn to his deputy and leader-in-waiting, Najib Razak.

The coalition would have to lose more than 50 seats for this to come true, but political analysts believe this is more an opposition fantasy than something Abdullah really fears.

Even in the 1999 elections, which followed a far more turbulent chapter in Malaysian politics, the coalition still managed to hold on to a two-thirds majority. It lost Terengganu state that year, but reclaimed it in the 2004 landslide.

Though Abdullah’s approval rating has sunk to a personal low, it remains around 60 percent, according to a recent poll, and the economy is still a relatively strong selling point.

The electorate is unhappy over rising prices, racial tensions and street crime, but overall the economy is holding up well despite a U.S. slowdown, creating jobs.

OPPOSITION, ISLAMISTS LOSE GROUND

Even if opposition parties steal seats from Abdullah’s Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, they could still be painted as losers if they don’t make major inroads federally.

For the Islamist party, PAS, it could be a disaster if it fails to retain Kelantan, the only opposition-held state.

A recent opinion poll by the Merdeka Center, a local market research firm, showed that Malays, the majority ethnic group and followers of Islam, are least likely of all the major racial groups to lodge a serious protest vote against the government.

A contented Malay community would rob the opposition of traction in the most important part of the electorate: Malays make up just over half the population and wield even greater electoral clout, partly because of the way boundaries are drawn.

This could be painfully evident in the sleepy rural villages of Kelantan, which PAS has ruled for 18 years but now holds by a razor-thin, one-seat majority after electoral setbacks in 2004.

Abdullah, himself an Islamic scholar who advocates his own brand of moderate Islam, recently pledged millions of dollars of investment for the state in an attempt to end PAS’s shaky reign.

ANWAR IBRAHIM: COMEBACK OR COMPLETE COLLAPSE?

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could also face sleepless nights during the campaign.

Anwar is barred from standing as a candidate until April 2008 because of a conviction for corruption, a charge he said had been contrived to wrongly imprison him for six years until his release in 2004. So he will not be standing in the March 8 poll.

But his party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party), will be contesting, striving to expand its presence in federal parliament beyond the single seat it currently holds.

Keadilan, and by extension Anwar, is either on the brink of political oblivion or a long-awaited comeback at these polls.

A charismatic Malay leader, Anwar is potentially dangerous because he has shown that he can bring thousands of young people from all races onto the streets against the government.

He did that in the late 1990s, becoming a lightning rod for popular disenchantment with then premier Mahathir Mohamad. But Abdullah is a much less divisive character, and the political and economic climate is not as hot as in Anwar’s “Reformasi” heyday.

The main ruling party, UMNO, disowned Anwar during that period and is determined to bury Keadilan at the elections.

Even though Keadilan holds just one federal seat, courtesy of Anwar’s wife, it remains important an a political vehicle that tries to appeal to secular-minded Malays who do not vote for the coalition but dislike the Islamist platform of PAS.

(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)

Article | Reuters

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