Sunday, March 22, 2009

Malaysia's ruling party charts future at critical talks

Malaysia's ruling party charts future at critical talks
Posted: 22 March 2009

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia's ruling party UMNO meets this week for talks that will chart its future and see a new leader installed, one year after an electoral drubbing that plunged the party into disarray.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which leads a coalition of race-based parties, has dominated Malaysian politics since independence from Britain 51 years ago.

But it has rarely faced such an immense challenge as now -- haemorrhaging voter support, riven by internal rivalries, and about to be led by deputy premier Najib Razak who has heavy political baggage and limited popularity.

"This is the most critical time in the history of UMNO," Najib said in a newspaper interview Sunday. "We need to determine our next course of action."

"We need to accept this challenge by making massive changes to the party and the government," he added. "If we are not brave enough to change, we will be changed by the people."

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi will step down at the March 24-28 general assembly after six years in power.

In March 2008 general elections, the Barisan Nasional coalition lost five states and a third of parliament to a resurgent opposition, in an unprecedented performance that stunned the nation and sent UMNO into a tailspin.

Despite pledges for drastic reform, the party has instead spent the past year preoccupied by the general assembly and the many leadership roles up for grabs.

In the process it has lost two by-elections seen as referendums on its popularity, helping the opposition maintain its credibility despite a failed bid to seize power with the help of defectors last year.

Commentators including from within the party have said that unless it quickly takes up the massive task of reform, it faces oblivion at the next general elections due by 2013.

But there are fears that instead of liberal moves like abandoning harsh internal security laws, overhauling a system of preferences for Malays, and improving relations with Malaysia's ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities, it could become more hardline.

"This general assembly is a turning point. It's a choice between a direction of arrogance versus accommodation," said Bridget Welsh, a Southeast Asian expert from Johns Hopkins University.

Recent events, including sedition charges laid against an opposition veteran for criticising a Malay royal ruler, indicate the party may instead opt to shore up its support among conservatives.

"The hardline approach is what's familiar. The opening-up approach is what's unknown and it would take bravery," Welsh said.

Najib, the son of a former prime minister and the nephew of another, has an impeccable political pedigree but limited public support, with one independent poll showing only 41 per cent of Malaysians believe he will be a good leader.

He assumes power at a time of crisis for the Malaysian economy, which risks slipping into recession this year, and is also burdened by allegations of corruption and attempts to link him with a sensational murder.

Najib has been forced to repeatedly deny any involvement in the 2006 killing of Mongolian woman Altantuya Shaariibuu, the lover of one of his close aides, whose body was blown up with military-grade explosives.

While there is no evidence he was involved, the case continues to captivate Malaysians and critics say that the many unanswered questions should be probed in an official investigation.

"He's never addressed this issue effectively," said Welsh. "It's like a splinter in the finger that's causing an infection for Najib's tenure."

James Chin, a political analyst from Kuala Lumpur's Monash University, said: "He has to show he is tough. In UMNO nice guys don't last... so I'm 100 per cent sure he's not going to be a nice guy," he said.

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