Malaysia PM in deeper crisis as 2 Cabinet ministers seek leadership reforms

Mar 31, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: Two Cabinet ministers have endorsed demands by ruling party dissidents to hold an open contest for the party leadership, highlighting the prime minister’s weakening control over power in Malaysia after disastrous election results.

The Star daily quoted International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Higher Education Minister Khaled Nordin on Monday as saying everybody should be eligible to run for the post of the United Malays National Organization party’s president.

At present, a contestant must be nominated by 30 percent of the party’s divisions, which is hard to secure by someone not endorsed by the party leadership. The party president automatically becomes the prime minister.

The nomination quota encourages an “unhealthy political culture,” Muhyiddin, who is the party vice president, was quoted as saying. “I hope that with the abolition, the party at all levels will have a healthy democratic election system.”

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is facing the biggest crisis of his political career after the March 8 general elections, in which the ruling National Front retained power but lost its traditional two-thirds majority. It also conceded five states to the opposition.

Being the dominant party in the coalition, Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization took most of the blame for the losses. The pressure on Abdullah increased after critics called on him to resign, a demand he rejected.

He also postponed party elections, which had been due in August, until December. But it will be difficult for a challenger to dislodge Abdullah in the elections because of the quota system, which was introduced by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in 1987 after he narrowly survived a challenge by then-Finance Minister Razaleigh Hamzah.

Mahathir, now an ordinary party member, is one of those calling for abolishing the quota system. Among the others is Razaleigh, who has openly declared he will try to challenge Abdullah.

Critics say the quota system ensures that members dissatisfied with the prime minister’s leadership cannot challenge him democratically. Supporters say it is necessary to ensure only serious candidates contest.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak, who is also the party deputy president, acknowledged there was unhappiness over the system but denied it was an impediment to democracy in the party.

“The system was introduced to prevent candidates that do not have strong support in the party to contest for top posts just to challenge the leadership,” he told reporters.

“It is not aimed at deterring democracy. Even though there is a quota system, democracy still flourishes in our party,” he said.

Abandoning the system would also mean changing the party constitution, which can only be done at an extraordinary general meeting. Party leaders have so far rejected calls for such a meeting.

Khaled and Muhyiddin, the two ministers, claimed they had opposed it when it was introduced by Mahathir but failed.

Muhyiddin stressed that his call did not mean he was against the current leadership or was encouraging members to challenge the president, The Star said.

Aides to Khaled and Muhyiddin confirmed they made the comments. The aides declined to be identified citing protocol.



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