Feb 24, 2008

ELECTION 2008 : PM opens election campaign with cabinet warning

It is time for Samy Vellu to go?

(AFP) Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi kicked off his election campaign on Sunday with a warning that his cabinet ministers were not assured of jobs in a new administration.

Abdullah formally submitted his nomination for the March 8 polls in the Kepala Batas parliamentary seat on the island state of Penang, surrounded by a sea of supporters from the ruling National Front or Barisan Nasional.

There was heavy security at the nomination centre, with police separating a thousand government supporters from some 500 activists from the Islamic party PAS who shouted the opposition battle cry of "Reformasi" or "Reform".

Veteran politicians who were expected to be ousted in the run-up to the polls have so far retained their positions, but Abdullah hinted in an interview with the New Straits Times that there might be a clean-out after the polls.

"I have made no promises to anyone. I have a free hand (after the election)," he was quoted as saying. "I did not promise anybody anything; whether a return to the cabinet or any other post," he added.

Abdullah has been criticised over his cabinet, which retained many veteran figures from the former administration of Mahathir Mohamad, and which analysts say has prevented him from carrying out his reform promises.

He swept to power in landslide 2004 elections amid optimism after taking over from Mahathir, but since then has gained a reputation for being weak and ineffective, and failing to act on key goals like eradicating corruption.

Figures like Samy Vellu, the only ethnic Indian minister in the multi-racial coalition, are contesting the election again despite strong criticism over his handling of recent anti-discrimination protests by Indian activists.

Abdullah defended the old faces in his line-up, saying they were critical to the election campaign, in which the opposition is aiming to deprive the coalition of its two-thirds majority for the first time in history.

"In facing elections, the party must be led by those who have experience because we do not want problems, which may affect our chances, to crop up due to inexperience," he told the New Straits Times.

Analaysts said Abdullah's popularity, which has already plummeted, would be further damaged if he dashes hopes of rejuvenation in the coalition which has ruled Malaysia since independence a half century ago.

"If things remain as they are with the old guard being retained, then it will be problematic for the future of the party," said political analyst Tricia Yeoh from the Centre for Public Policy Studies.

"If he wants to talk about change, he needs to show it, rather than just speak about it," she said.

In Kepala Batas, Abdullah is contesting against a candidate from PAS, one of the three main opposition parties who have made a pact to stand just one opposition figure in each seat and avoid three-cornered fights.

"Malaysia is rich with resources, but the wealth is only serving the needs of the cronies of the National Front. Corruption is rampant. We promise to stamp it out," said PAS candidate Subri Mat Arshad.

The government is also struggling with public anger over the rising cost of food and fuel, as well as concern over crime rates.

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