Aug 3, 2006

Tun Mahathir zeroes in on PM Badawi's weakness

Analysis by foreign reporter on the current situation between Tun Mahathir and PM Badawi

Extracted from AFP News
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad is a political street-fighter with a score to settle with his handpicked successor, and he is about to punch where it can hurt most.





Mahathir, burning with a sense of betrayal, wants to take his attack on Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to the main ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the seat of power and the political vehicle for majority ethnic Malays.

"The Malays still look up to Mahathir and I'm afraid this could cause the Malays to split again," said one political analyst who declined to be named.

Mahathir has spent the past four months sniping at Abdullah's government from public meetings, impromptu press conferences and even the pages of an independent Web site he had once shunned.

He has accused the government of lacking "guts", of selling out Malaysian sovereignty and generally shelving some key state projects that he had hoped would continue into his retirement.

Abdullah has fended off the attacks by using his ministers to carefully rebut all of them and by staying above the fray himself, but now Mahathir wants to explain his criticisms to UMNO, a move that threatens to sow doubt and undermine Abdullah's leadership.

The government and its party stalwarts have sensed the danger and UMNO's leadership has already delivered a veiled warning to its almost 200 divisions not to invite Mahathir to speak at their meetings.

"UMNO divisions should avoid breaching party rules such as inviting individuals who are not permitted to open division meetings," UMNO's information chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib said.

One least one division in the northern state of Perlis has defied the order and invited Mahathir to speak. "He will be addressing a talk on Aug. 26," said Zahidi Zainul Abidin, UMNO divisional chief for that area, told Reuters.

No one seriously expects Mahathir, 80, to make a political comeback so late in life but political analysts say he could bring any latent dissent and dissatisfaction with Abdullah out into the open, perhaps at the next UMNO general assembly in November.

With political pundits tipping an early election sometime next year, that is a disturbing prospect for the government.

RISKS

But Mahathir's move is not without its own risks, analysts say.

There is no obvious leadership challenger waiting in the wings, ready to seize on any party dissent Mahathir might flush out.

Abdullah led UMNO to a thumping general election victory in early 2004, winning on a pledge to clean up corruption and croniysm. But his popularity has suffered a bit since following a series of petrol price and interest rate hikes.

If UMNO turns a deaf ear to Mahathir's complaints, Malaysia's elder statesman could vanish as an enduring political force and tarnish his legacy after a record 22 years in power, analysts said.

"Mahathir doesn't have the power of incumbency," said K.S. Nathan of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

"He doesn't control the instruments of the government or party machinery. Abdullah does and that makes a big difference."

Mahathir also faces an uphill task to unseat Abdullah because the party is run on a complex electoral system devised by Mahathir to deter challengers, analysts said. To run for the UMNO presidency, a candidate needs to be backed by at least half of the divisions.

"Mahathir is getting a dose of his own medicine," said political commentator Shamsul Amri Baharuddin.

And there is no prospect of immediately unseating Abdullah as UMNO president because the party is not due to hold internal elections until late next year or early 2008.

Despite this, Mahathir appears in no mood to back off.

Last week, an unknown man attacked him pepper spray just as he was about to speak to a public gathering. He took a few hours to regather himself and then resumed his attack on the government in a public forum in opposition-ruled Kelantan state.

"I want to save UMNO from the leadership of people who have no sense of responsibility. People who say something but do something else," Mahathir told the forum.

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