KUALA LUMPUR, March 26 (Reuters) – Malaysia’s main ruling party appointed a new leader on Thursday and handed him the “dream team” of allies he had appealed for to push through party and economic reforms.
Najib Razak needed a strong mandate from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lynchpin of the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years, to tackle the worst recession since the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.
Najib will be appointed prime minister in April and needs to reconstruct a coalition that stumbled to its worst losses in national and state elections a year ago.
Najib’s main ally who will become party deputy president and deputy prime minister, reformist International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, won his battle easily at UMNO’s annual congress despite earlier concerns he would be defeated.
Questions remain as to whether Najib can do any better than incumbent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who rode a wave of popular enthusiasm after the end of Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year rule and won 90 percent of parliamentary seats in 2004 elections.
By 2008, Abdullah, who had also pledged reforms and to end corruption, was dead in the water and the National Front coalition lost a third of parliamentary seats to the opposition.
Abdullah warned the party not to turn on Najib or “assassinate his character” as it did to him.
He also took a swipe at the old guard and Mahathir, whose sniping helped hasten his exit and who skipped the congress after his son lost out in the battle to be party youth chief.
“They believe that UMNO will regain its glory if we revert to the old ways — the old order, by restricting the freedom of our citizens and by silencing their criticism,” Abdullah said, as he readied to hand over power.
The 2,500 delegates responded by voting in a raft of newcomers seen as Najib’s allies and his top picks to the three party vice presidential posts.
Even though the results were greeted by cheering delegates clad in traditional Malay dress, there was resistance to change from the rank and file who have been told by their leaders to end their corrupt ways and the patronage on which UMNO thrives.
Musa Sheikh Fadzir, a delegate representing the opposition-ruled northern state of Penang, called for the abolition of the party’s Disciplinary Board, the internal body that has censured a number of contestants in the party polls.
“The prosecution is selective, it creates suspicions among us and we are subjected to humiliation,” he said to loud applause.
“And what is all this talk about ‘political money’ (vote buying) in UMNO? We are a political party and if we did not have any money, how will we even manage to arrive in Kuala Lumpur?”
ELECTION TESTS LOOM
Days after Najib becomes prime minister, the National Front will have to face off against the opposition, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, in a parliamentary by-election and in two state by-elections on April 7.
Political tensions have reached boiling point in this nation of 27 million people where politics split along ethnic lines.
The government has charged an opposition legislator with sedition, banned opposition newspapers and used riot police to break up its rallies.
Anwar was a member of UMNO and tipped for the top job before he was sacked by Mahathir on what he insists were trumped up charges of corruption and sodomy in the late 1990s.
Najib also faces questions over his suitability to rule as he has been mauled on opposition internet sites who have linked him to the lurid murder of a Mongolian model, although there is no evidence and Najib has repeatedly denied involvement.
While the political drama plays out, investors are also watching to see if Malaysia can reform its economy under Najib.
The incoming premier has pledged to boost high-value services to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on exports of electronics, which account for nearly 40 percent of the total, and on commodities in what is Asia’s third most trade-dependent economy.
“Fundamentally there does need to be a reform in the way politics is done in Malaysia before the market and investors in general take these sorts of things seriously,” said IDEAglobal economist Philip McNicholas.
Source : Reuters