Friday, October 10, 2008

Battle for top job expected to intensify

The decision by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to cut short his leadership is unlikely to end the larger political battle between a resurgent opposition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and a considerably weakened Barisan Nasional ruling coalition.

Political analysts say the tussle would worsen because Abdullah's choice, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak, and Anwar are arch-rivals and see each other as standing in the way of their ambitions.

"The rise of Najib would also see the return of (former prime minister) Dr Mahathir Mohamad to Umno and possibly to the political centre stage. He would probably be the biggest influence on Najib," said political commentator James Wong.

Abdullah rose up the ranks of Umno, was well liked and in the shadows during the 22 years when Dr Mahathir held sway. Dr Mahathir had said last year he picked Abdullah as a "temporary substitute" to hold the seat for Najib.

"Abdullah would be remembered as a pleasant man who simply did not have the skills or the gumption to rule," said a Chinese newspaper editor who declined to be identified. "He tried to please everybody and in the endfailed to please anybody."

Najib, an economist by training, has more than two decades of political and government experience.

He was only 22 when he entered politics after the death of his father, revered second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak, in 1976. He became the country's youngest minister two years later.

But his standing has been damaged by links to the 2006 murder of a Mongolian woman with whom he allegedly had an affair. Anwar also accused him of receiving kickbacks on defence deals he had handled. Najib denied the allegations and swore on the Quran he had never met Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was blown up with C4 explosives.

Anwar said it would be an "unmitigated disaster" for Malaysia if Najib became prime minister.
"He takes over at a very difficult time for Malaysia, with political and economic turmoil on the rise and with all previously accepted norms now under attack," said Ramon Navaratnam, a former senior finance ministryofficial who is now the president of Transparency International, Malaysia.

"He has the experience and Umno backing, but he is under a cloud over the Mongolian affair. His performance as national leader would be affected unless the controversy is cleared up."

Abdullah succeeded Dr Mahathir as the country's fifth prime minister in November 2003, but he immediately got into trouble for cancelling several large public projects. He also reversed Dr Mahathir's economic focus from manufacturing to agriculture, ostensibly to benefit rural Malays.

Under fierce criticism, he reversed the policies and in the past four years kept changing decisions, earning the nickname "Mr Flip Flop".

But critics of Najib say he is a "carbon copy" of his mentor Dr Mahathir and is likely to use harsh measures, including security laws that allow for detention without trial, to curtail the resurgent opposition.

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