Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on Sept. 17 yielded his position as finance minister to his deputy, Najib Razak (in exchange for the latter’s post as defense minister), and said for the first time that he might leave office before his previously set date of June 2010. The same day, the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) became the first to defect from Abdullah’s 14-party Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government. Both developments came shortly after news emerged that former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is planning to rejoin the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) in order to continue his bid to oust Abdullah from it.
External and internal pressures on Abdullah to step down have finally come to a head, and his days as UMNO leader and prime minister are numbered.
· Malaysia: Net Assessment <http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/malaysia_net_assessment>
· Malaysia’s New Dawn <http://www.stratfor.com/podcast/malaysia_s_new_dawn>
Although the SAPP’s defection was expected and the party held only two of BN’s 140 seats in parliament, fears that its official defection could trigger others are valid , as most of the challenges Abdullah faces come from one source: his rival and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar made it his mission to topple Abdullah from power by Sept. 16 — the 45th anniversary of Malaysia’s founding — first by exploiting and widening rifts inside the UMNO, and second by luring at least 30 BN parliament members to join the opposition alliance (led by his Parti Keadilan Rakyat) that already commands 82 of the Malaysian parliament’s 222 seats.
Although the deadline has passed and the 31 defections that Anwar claims to have secured remain unconfirmed, these details are peripheral to the core strategy Anwar has used against the ruling party for months. Anwar said the delay occurred because Abdullah refused to meet with him in person to secure a guarantee for the personal safety of would-be defectors after their names are announced.
By using a clever mix of public relations tactics, promises of better governance (such as the scrapping of the pro-ethnic Malay discrimination policies) and political persuasion, Anwar has sown increasing distrust and disorientation inside the ruling coalition leadership — effectively freezing any attempts at efficient governance. This strategy was further boosted Aug. 26, when elections in Permatang Pauh in Anwar’s home state of Penang gave him his parliamentary seat again. As Stratfor predicted then , based within parliament, Anwar would gain greater leverage and opportunities to step up the intensity and frequency of his courtship of would-be defectors from BN.
Abdullah may have survived Sept. 16, but the uncertainty felt by his closest political allies, his continued failure to consolidate and motivate his own party, his firefighting rather than pre-emptive responses to the opposition’s provocations and his inability to take his eye off political survival long enough to lead the country from its worsening economic outlook have led even key members of the UMNO leadership in recent days to openly start questioning his reluctance to step down.
Among those questioning Abdullah are Zaid Ibrahim, former minister responsible for judicial and legal reform (who resigned Sept. 15 in protest against the use of the internal security act against members of the opposition), Abdullah’s second-in-command, Najib, and the UMNO Vice President and International Trade and Industry Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin — all of whom had, in July, backed Abdullah’s plans to leave in mid-2010.
The surrender of Abdullah’s finance portfolio (a key portfolio in Malaysian policymaking) is likely a compromise struck with his UMNO colleagues, designed to eventually give the him a graceful exit, and to give Najib a chance to prove to the UMNO his ability to lead competently (in spite of his less-than-stellar reputation, including alleged misuse of Defense Ministry funds and the alleged murder of a 28-year-old Mongolian).
By accelerating the leadership transition process, the UMNO is likely hoping to shield its leadership from Mahathir’s inevitable attacks against Abdullah and thus prevent further defections from the BN coalition. Whether this defensive strategy works remains to be seen. But regardless of the outcome, rising political heat and uncertainty in Kuala Lumpur is nearly guaranteed for the next month ahead.
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