KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia’s prime minister-in-waiting called on Tuesday for the country’s largest political party to end corruption and embrace reform, warning voters’ “seething anger” would become “hatred” if it did not.
On Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak will become leader of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the biggest party in the coalition that has ruled this Southeast Asian country for 51 years, and he will later become premier.
Najib said that just as UMNO had led Malaysia through the Asian financial crisis a decade ago, it could be trusted to navigate the current global downturn that has pummelled Asia’s third most trade-dependent economy harder than expected.
His most urgent problem is to fix UMNO, which is seen as arrogant, corrupt and chauvinist by non-Malays who account for 30 percent of the 27 million strong population.
He warned that UMNO and the National Front coalition, which staggered to its biggest ever loss in national and state elections last year, could lose power in elections due by 2013.
“The political landscape of this country has changed. To remain relevant, we have no choice but to move with the times,” Najib said in a speech to party activists.
Despite opinion polls showing that Najib is even less popular than incumbent Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is being pushed out for his failure to contain a surging opposition, the mood at the first day of the party congress was upbeat.
Supporters of candidates for posts ranging from deputy president to the head of the youth wing were out in force at the congress, dressed in colourful T-shirts bearing the names and ballot numbers of their choices.
“There is no one else. Najib is our only realistic hope under the present situation,” said Guntor Tobeng, UMNO division deputy head from the northern State of Kedah.
A LOOMING CRACKDOWN?
However, the opposition and some political analysts fear that Najib will usher in a return to the authoritarian rule of former premier Mahathir Mohamad after Abdullah’s rule since 2003 saw a relaxation of restrictions on the media.
The government on Tuesday banned several well-known online news portals from getting media passes to the congress because of what it said was their “irresponsible” and “sickening” reporting about the party and its leaders.
Najib has been linked, largely on opposition-supporting websites, to lurid allegations that he was involved in the murder of a Mongolian model. He denies the charges, for which no evidence has been produced.
Just hours after the ban was issued, Najib said in his speech that “we cannot regard the new media as our enemy”.
On Monday, the government banned the publication of two opposition newspapers for three months and broke up an opposition rally using riot police, although it was not clear whether Najib was directly involved in the decisions.
“Najib could either allow dissent and manage it through debate, or he could use strong arm tactics to silence dissent, and the latter is what he appears to be choosing,” Dzulkifli Ahmad, an official with Malaysia’s Islamist opposition party, told Reuters after his party’s newspaper was banned.
EYES ON THE ECONOMY OR ON POLITICS?
With Malaysia facing its deepest recession since the Asian financial crisis, there are risks that Najib, 55, will be distracted by politics from his efforts to boost the economy.
He wants to move Malaysia’s economy, which has grown an average 5.4 percent a year since the Asian crisis, into the services sector and away from electronics, oil and commodities.
Exports have plunged by a third in 12 months and Najib two weeks ago unveiled a budget with 60 billion ringgit ($16.48 billion) in new spending and loans over two years to try to prop up economic growth and forestall job losses.
To do so he must overcome not only the UMNO polls this week in which he needs to secure votes for top allies but a parliamentary by-election and two state seat by-elections on April 7.
“Developments on the political front over the next three weeks or so will likely be critical in gauging the level of public and party support for the incoming prime minister, and by extension, the effectiveness and speed of fiscal implementation,” Citigroup economist Wei Zheng Kit wrote in a note on Tuesday.
Source : Reuters