Nov 14, 2006

PM : I'm here to stay

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Reuters) -- Malaysia's embattled prime minister has declared that he is "here is stay" in the top job despite political uncertainly created by withering attacks on his leadership by predecessor Mahathir Mohamad.

"I will continue. I am here to stay," Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said in an interview published on Sunday by Mingguan Malaysia, a Malay-language weekly controlled by the main ruling party, UMNO.

"The policies and the strategies are good and I plan to implement them successfully. I have a long-term plan."

Abdullah's leadership has come under question inside and outside UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation, since Mahathir went on the attack six months ago, fueling talk that the incumbent may not survive long as premier.

Abdullah faces a test of his grass-roots support within UMNO during the party's annual assembly this week, although he will be spared a face-down with 81-year-old Mahathir, who will skip the meeting after suffering a mild heart attack.

Mahathir ruled for 22 years before handing power to Abdullah in late 2003, and is still revered among elements of the party which can make or break prime ministers. UMNO has led government since independence from Britain in 1957.

Abdullah, rehearsing a line he is likely to stress at the meeting, told the newspaper he would not be distracted by the Mahathir row and would focus on implementing a $54 billion five-year development blueprint he had unveiled in March.

"This debate will not decide whether we will win the next general elections. What is important is whether the government implements its development plans," Abdullah said.

"I have too much work. I want to focus on my work."

Abdullah led UMNO to a landslide election win in 2004 on an anti-corruption platform, but his party standing has been sapped by a slowing economy, a rising cost of living, the feud with Mahathir and impatience for results in his anti-graft campaign.

The next election is not due until 2009 but Abdullah is expected to seek a fresh mandate in late 2007 or early 2008.

Mahathir has accused Abdullah of personal betrayal, penny-pinching and nepotism and the government of lacking "guts" and selling out national interests in Malaysia's recent decision not to go ahead with Mahathir's idea for a bridge to Singapore.

Abdullah has so far declined to return fire, although he told Mingguan Malaysia that Mahathir was opposing the whole government, not just certain policies. "He is opposing me and the government in total," he said.

Though Mahathir will miss the UMNO assembly, he has strong party sympathy and his criticisms may be voiced by supporters, setting the stage for some potentially divisive debate.

One of Mahathir's sons, Mukhriz, told reporters on Sunday that he hoped his father's supporters within UMNO would speak up and defend his stand at the assembly.

"I hope at this UMNO general assembly we will see some of the speakers who still raise these issues and I hope it will be adequately debated," Mukhriz, a senior UMNO Youth member, told reporters at the hospital where his father was resting.

Mahathir, who had heart bypass surgery in 1989, did not need further surgery and would remain in hospital under observation for another four days, Mukhriz said.

The family would hold a prayer session on Tuesday, on the eve of the full assembly, to wish for his speedy recovery and all UMNO delegates, including the premier, were welcome, he added.

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