Date: Sunday, March 02, 2008 @ 00:17:35 CST
Topic: National: Politics
Bill Clinton came from a little town called Hope. Chairman Mao sprung from the chili-eating village of Shaoshan, a place whose entire economy now relies on promoting its native son. So it’s instructive to think for a moment of the rural district of Kepala Batas, home to Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The locals of Kepala Batas, located in Western Malaysia’s Penang state, consider Abdullah, whose ruling National Front coalition is contesting the March 8 general elections, a kindly, avuncular presence. But their real respect appears to be reserved for his father and grandfather, both noted Islamic clerics. Indeed, one of the main streets in town is named after Abdullah’s father, Ahmad Badawi.
A grilled-fish vendor named Ibrahim Anwar, coping with the lunchtime rush near Ahmad Badawi Avenue, is befuddled when asked why he plans to vote for Abdullah. Ibrahim stops to consider the question. After mulling it over for a good minute, he finally answers: “Well, he comes from a good family. That is why we like him and vote for him.”
Although Abdullah doesn’t inspire much passion even in his own hometown, the March polls will almost certainly hand him five more years in power. Malaysia may be a democracy, but it is one in which the National Front has ruled uninterrupted since independence. The composition of electoral constituencies ensures that voters from the rural heartland, where support for the governing alliance is strongest, wield more power than citizens from urban areas, where opposition parties hold some sway. The weighted system explains why the National Front won 64% of the popular vote in 2004 yet managed to fill 90% of the seats in Parliament. In five decades, the country has had exactly five Prime Ministers — all leaders of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malay-based party that dominates the National Front.
“Malaysia is a heavily controlled state,” says Steven Gan, editor of the online daily Malaysiakini. “We are stuck with Abdullah because of the nature of patronage politics and the enormous power of the office he holds.” Despite Malaysia’s choreographed political system, Abdullah is something of an accidental Prime Minister. His iron-fisted predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled for 22 years, discarded three potential political heirs before settling on Abdullah in 2003. He was everything Mahathir was not: affable, cautious, nonthreatening.
In the wake of several corruption scandals involving some of Mahathir’s closest associates, it also helped that Abdullah was regarded as Mr. Clean. Nevertheless, many in Malaysia saw the now 68-year-old as a transitional figure, a placeholder until UMNO found someone more visionary. In January, Mahathir even claimed that he had picked Abdullah for the job on the condition that he would serve only one term — an agreement the PM denies ever having made.
What Abdullah certainly did promise was to combat graft and strengthen civil liberties during his tenure. The vows so pleased Malaysian voters that in the 2004 elections, less than five months after Abdullah became Prime Minister, the National Front won its largest-ever mandate. But the euphoria hasn’t lasted. Abdullah has been criticized for everything from restarting several of Mahathir’s extravagant mega projects to rolling back press freedoms that he himself had granted. At the same time, his stolid image as a compromise candidate has come back to haunt him.
“His performance is disappointing, unexciting,” says Kuala Lumpur-based economist Din Merican. “He can’t grasp details, and he does not understand the future.” That future isn’t quite as bright as the National Front might hope. Although the ruling coalition is composed of more than a dozen ethnically based parties, minority Chinese and Indians are complaining more loudly about perceived government discrimination. In particular, many non-Muslims feel it is getting harder to freely practice their own faiths.
Ethnic and religious tensions have gotten so bad, in fact, that even Abdullah admits the National Front probably won’t match its 2004 landslide victory. Compounding matters are high consumer prices that have shocked Malaysians who are used to living cheaply off the bounty of their resource-rich homeland. The one opposition candidate who could challenge Abdullah won’t be running on March 8.
Anwar Ibrahim, a former Deputy Prime Minister who was jailed for six years on corruption charges that human-rights activists considered politically motivated, is an impassioned orator who can draw crowds of tens of thousands. His cult of personality drives the People’s Justice Party, whose racial diversity is rare in Malaysian politics. But Anwar was banned from politics for five years because of his jail time. The embargo expires in April.
Given that Abdullah could have called elections any time over the next 15 months, the choice of poll date leaves many Malaysians feeling that he is intentionally excluding a certain former deputy premier. Abdullah maintains that he has “forgotten” all about Anwar, preferring instead to outline a vision of several “economic-growth corridors” that he says will transform the manufacturing and service sectors. (One corridor happens to run through Abdullah’s hometown, Kepala Batas.)
The PM points to rising rural incomes as proof that his economic policies are working. Placating farmers is particularly important given that rural Malaysia is the National Front’s core constituency. And even in the urban areas, Abdullah’s renowned blandness could actually help him.
“The thing about him is that no one hates him,” says Liew Chin Tong, an election-strategy adviser for the opposition Democratic Action Party. “That makes it hard to rally support against him.” Not that Abdullah’s critics aren’t trying. Yes, farmer’s incomes have increased, they say, but so has the cost of living, particularly in urban areas. Furthermore, a U.S. recession could upset Malaysia’s export-led economy. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indian populations are speaking out against a national affirmative-action plan that favors Malays in everything from education to government contracts. Indians, who are Malaysia’s poorest ethnicity, are so frustrated that they have marched by the thousands in Kuala Lumpur in recent months.
“We respected [the National Front] for a long time, but they haven’t helped us at all,” says rubber tapper M. Krishnan, an ethnic Indian in Kepala Batas. “So now we need to change, to fight.” But ethnic Indians make up less than 10% of Malaysia’s electorate. For the opposition to really score big, it must lure more Malays and Chinese.
In previous elections, the opposition Islamist party PAS has had some success portraying its religious values as an antidote to rising crime and drug use. Back in 2004, 30% of Kepala Batas voters actually chose the PAS parliamentary candidate over Abdullah. (In a complicated twist of family history, Abdullah’s father served as a PAS youth leader, before the party fully broke with UMNO.) This election season, PAS’s green-and-white flags flutter throughout Kepala Batas. “Abdullah may come from a good Muslim family, but he does not make his wife wear a veil,” says Fadzil Darus, a grocery-store owner in the Kepala Batas village of Pasir Gebu, who plans to vote for the Islamic party. Still, even PAS’s Kepala Batas candidate, Subri Arshad, doesn’t believe he’ll trump Abdullah. All he hopes for is to lower the PM’s margin of victory. But if Kepala Batas entrepreneurs like Lee Peir Jye are any indication, Abdullah has little need for concern. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Abdullah or someone else,” says the mobile phone-shop owner. “As long as we support the government, there will be stability, and that’s good for business.” Not a ringing hometown endorsement, but it’s all Malaysia’s accidental Prime Minister needs.
With reporting by Baradan Kuppusamy/Kuala Lumpur