Oct 30, 2006

Malaysia's explosive political feud damaging PM and Mahathir: analysts

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - An ugly feud between former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad and his successor Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is damaging both men and creating uncertainty in Malaysia's political scene, analysts say.

The pair have rowed for most of this year, but the gloves came off last week after highly anticipated "peace talks" aimed at ironing out their differences failed in spectacular fashion, triggering heightened attacks from both sides.

Mahathir said Abdullah was running a "police state", and renewed accusations of nepotism, corruption and economic mismanagement against the administration which he complains is dismantling his legacy built up over two decades in power.

Abdullah abandoned his previously restrained approach, retorting that the 82-year-old was spitting "stronger doses of venom" and noting that Mahathir's own sons had profited substantially during his time in power.

In an open letter to Malaysians, circulated over the Internet, Mahathir then warned that a "climate of fear" had enveloped the country thanks to Abdullah, his hand-picked successor who was installed in the top job in 2003.

As Malaysians follow the row with rapt attention, analysts say that some of the mud is sticking on Abdullah, whose lustre has already dimmed with a disappointing performance since his landslide election victory in 2004.

"In Malaysian politics, the perception is important. It's not so much if it's absolutely true, especially when the allegations are made by a former prime minister," political commentator James Wong Wing On told AFP.

Maznah Mohamad, a senior research fellow with the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, said that Mahathir -- a shrewd strategist -- was reflecting popular discontent with the new premier.

"The ultimate objective of Tun Mahathir is to bring down Abdullah Badawi. I don't think he will stop before that happens," she said.

Amidst Mahathir's slew of allegations, "people will pick and choose and agree with him," she said.

The prolonged row is contributing to a sense of drift amid concerns Malaysia's economy is slowing down and grumbles that Abdullah has not lived up to election promises such as tackling corruption, said Maznah.

"What Mahathir says, it does resonate generally because there is no feel-good factor any more."

But the fallout isn't landing on Abdullah alone.

Mahathir's attack, including its timing in the midst of Muslim Eid al-Fitr celebrations when forgiveness is supposed to be the order of the day, has alarmed Malaysians and infuriated the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO).

"People feel now that it is very, very uncharitable of Mahathir before Hari Raya to do this," said veteran UMNO watcher and anthropology professor at the National University of Malaya, Shamsul Amri Baharuddin.

"The premeditatedness of Mahathir is actually making people very unhappy. That he is all out to do some damage, he is not constructive at all and is informed by personal interests, not national interests," he said.

Analysts also said that Malaysians detect a whiff of hypocrisy in Mahathir's claims of corruption against Abdullah, and his complaints that he is being gagged by the ruling party and the media.

"The general perspective is that he is criticising the very same thing he created in the 22 years he was in power, like the police state, so he is actually saying everything about himself, rather than Abdullah," said Shamsul.

Abdullah has said that the feud can only help the opposition, which was trounced at the last elections, but few commentators expect the row to produce serious political instability.

"It will increase the chances of the opposition of getting more support and more seats in the coming election, although a change of government is still unlikely," said Wong of the next ballot due to be held by 2009.

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