Big win gives Malaysian PM clear mandate
* Election victory routed Islamist opposition
* New cabinet to meet on March 31
KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was sworn in for a new term on Monday after a stunning election victory that routed the Islamist opposition and strengthened his hold over his fractious party.
Abdullah’s multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional coalition won one of the biggest election victories in Malaysian history, surprising those who had dismissed the softly spoken scholar as a faceless time-server in the shadow of his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad.
Abdullah took over from the veteran leader only in October, but the extent of his victory gives him a powerful mandate to pursue his own vision of economic development and intensify a crackdown on corruption.
Whereas Mahathir’s abrasive style and the jailing and humiliation of his deputy Anwar Ibrahim drove many Malays into the arms of the opposition Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS), Abdullah’s courteous manner and moral standing won them back, leaving PAS on the edge of the political wilderness. His model of a tolerant and progressive Islam turned out to be a vote winner in the northern Malay heartland that PAS had sought to turn into the main battleground of the election.
Abdullah extended Barisan’s grip on the federal parliament to about 90 percent, easily surpassing the two-thirds majority needed to pass laws and rebuilding support for his United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) that dominates Barisan.
He also saw off an attempt by PAS to capture two northern state assemblies and stunned the country by winning back control of Terengganu state, which swung to PAS in 1999.
But after tense recounts in several provincial seats, it remained unclear whether PAS would retain its northeastern stronghold of Kelantan, the official Bernama news agency said.
As the recounts proceeded, about a hundred PAS supporters gathered outside party headquarters in the state capital of Kota Baharu, chanting “God is Greatest”.
PAS spiritual leader and Kelantan chief minister Nik Aziz Nik Mat arrived looking calm. “The moon has fallen but we can rise again,” the 74-year-old preacher said in a sermon to supporters, alluding to the PAS emblem of a white moon on a green flag.
But there was no disguising the extent of PAS’s defeat. “We have yet to figure out what went wrong, but I have to admit there was an element of complacency on our part,” one top PAS official told Reuters.
Abdullah’s big win showed how much PAS had squandered the support it had built up over the years, said Kalimullah Hassan, editor-in-chief of the government-owned New Straits Times.
“It was so easy,” he said in a signed commentary. “They alienated the non-Muslims; they alienated business; they alienated foreign investors; and without even realising it, they alienated their own constituency, Muslims.”
With fundamentalist Islam weakened as a political force, Abdullah can focus on a domestic agenda of tackling corruption and promoting small business and industry instead of the grandiose projects of the Mahathir era.
Abdullah promised changes in the government line-up. “I’m confident to say there will be a few young faces in my cabinet,” he said. The new cabinet will meet on March 31. —Reuters