International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Mud in Malaysia
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR: in Malaysia

In the aftermath of elections in March that resulted in huge losses for the ruling United Malays National Organization and its coalition partners, the struggle for power in Malaysia has become more vicious and the outcome less certain.

It is drawing rapt attention not only from Malaysia's politically-engaged masses but also from foreign investors and neighbors fascinated by Malaysia's curious blend of democracy, pluralism and authoritarianism.

The battle is over who, if anyone, will succeed Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who is under pressure to quit after the election setback. But the more mud that is thrown, the more it appears that Abdullah may be the best man for the job after all.

The four most likely alternatives are the opposition leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim; Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak; former Finance Minister Razaleigh Hamzah, and Muhyiddin Yassin, minister of international trade.

New sodomy allegations lodged against Anwar, who was sacked and jailed under former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on similar charges that were later thrown out, are hampering his efforts to return to Parliament and stake his claim to leadership.

The charges have the mark of desperation, not so much on the part of Abdullah, but on others in the party hierarchy. They follow potentially even more damaging allegations a week earlier against Najib, the heir apparent to Abdullah, relating to events surrounding the murder of a Mongolian translator and model. A close associate of Najib and two members of a leaders' security squad answerable to him are now on trial.

On the face of things, Abdullah is very weak. Rising petrol prices have naturally been unpopular in an oil-producing nation where car ownership is relatively high and public transport abysmal.

He has discussed handing over the reins to his deputy at some future, but unspecified, date. He still carries much of the blame for the election failure, which provided an opening for United Malays National Organization critics led by Mahathir, even though the result reflected the disappointment of those who expected Abdullah to reform a system corrupted by Mahathir's 22 years in office.

But there are signs that many who voted for the opposition in March are more likely to return to United Malays National Organization (UMNO), with Abdullah in charge. That is a reality that UMNO local leaders must face even though many resent his modest efforts to rein in the patronage system.

Abdullah, a man often accused of being asleep at the wheel, has recently been taking risks, helped by some new, straight-talking, independent-minded ministers.

The fuel price rise was one. Another has been the rehabilitation of judges sacked by Mahathir, part of a broader effort to clean up the judiciary and make government more transparent.

Abdullah will never have the charisma or the crowd-pulling appeal of Anwar, but even without the new allegations, Anwar had no easy route back to the top. The former deputy prime minister is as distrusted as an opportunist as he is admired for his charm and eloquence.

On the one hand, Anwar needs to appear a principled leader of a disparate opposition coalition. On the other, he must try to induce members of the governing coalition to defect.

He must also keep an eye on the possibility of rejoining UMNO as the savior who will lead many Malays back to its fold. Although the sodomy allegations are widely seen as a political gambit, they underline what a divisive figure he has become.

Of the possible current UMNO contenders for the top job, Najib is shadowed by proximity to the sex and murder scandal. The trial of the alleged murderers has itself been subject to some bizarre legal twists. This issue may eventually go away but probably not before December when UMNO meets to decide its leadership.

Razaleigh, 71, once had great stature but is little known to younger members, having been out of office since 1987. Muhyiddin is competent but unlikely to inspire so could probably only succeed if Abdullah implodes by December.

That is always possible. With five months to go, UMNO and its allies are alive with name-calling and the public is worried about inflation.

But Abdullah may find that if he stands his ground, continues to make bold decisions and shows that the UMNO-led coalition under his leadership represents racial and religious moderation and an open society, the UMNO delegates will come to see what many others already see: He is the best and least controversial prime minister currently available.