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Monday, November 5, 2007

Malaysia's ruling party ramps up election preparations as annual assembly opens

IHT (4/11/2007): Malaysia's political elite gathered Monday for the ruling party's annual congress, seeking strategies to retain power in national elections expected within months as public disquiet mounts over soaring crime, corruption and prices.

The United Malays National Organization, the dominant component of the ruling National Front coalition, will start the five-day assembly with a closed-door briefing by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi later Monday. The main proceedings kick off with Abdullah's keynote speech Wednesday to some 2,500 delegates.

The National Front's current mandate lasts until mid-2009, but Abdullah is widely expected to call an early election within the first half of next year.

"We want to ... focus on the elections," party Vice President Muhyiddin Yassin said over the weekend. "We want to show that (the National Front) is united and its struggle is for every citizen in the country."

The coalition faces little danger of losing power, but observers say it is unlikely to replicate the 2004 election results, when it won 90 percent of the seats in Parliament.

Public anger against the government has been growing over a string of issues, but inflation and corruption rank high, especially after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim released a video clip recently, purportedly showing a prominent lawyer brokering the appointment of top judges.

Denying there is a judicial crisis, the government rejected demands to set up a royal commission to probe the lawyer and judges he allegedly helped appoint. Alleged corruption in the police force has also been highlighted by the arrest last week of Malaysia's third-highest ranking police officer for concealing massive wealth.

"For many people, the government has become so rotten that it is incapable of doing anything right," Malik Imtiaz Sarwar, a human rights lawyer and political commentator, told The Associated Press.

People are also upset about spiraling consumer prices, which have been partially boosted by rising global oil prices. Officially, the consumer price index, a measure of inflation, has gone up by 2 percent this year.

But market surveys by local newspapers show costs have gone up by as much as 6.7 percent for vegetables, 8 percent for rice, 15 percent for milk and 20 percent for bread.

Soaring crime in cities — including muggings in broad daylight — were emphasized by the rape and murder Thursday of a 9-year-old girl while she was alone at home. On Saturday, a woman and her 3-year-old daughter were burned alive in their car, and a 50-year-old Singaporean on holiday was raped and stabbed to death in a posh condominium Sunday.

UMNO's leaders "are living in their insulated Rajah (royal) life and don't understand what ordinary people are going through," Malik, the lawyer, said.

The UMNO annual assembly is also being held against the backdrop of racial tensions in this multicultural and multi-religious country.

UMNO, which has been in power since independence in 1957, represents Malays who are all Muslim and form 60 percent of the country's 26 million people. Although the country prides itself on its racial harmony, critics of UMNO say Malays in general have become insensitive to the minority Chinese and Indians.

Last year, the UMNO meeting was tarnished by chauvinistic speakers who warned the minorities not to question Islam or Malay rights, a reference to an affirmative action program for Malays.

Little seems to have changed.

"We intend to acknowledge the role and rights of other communities — but without compromising Malay rights and priorities," Muhyiddin, the party vice president, said. "UMNO is a Malay party and we cannot shy from defending Malay issues, however prickly they may be to the non-Malays. " (AP)


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