Mahathir’s party splits by-election

Jasbant Singh, PENDANG, Malaysia, AP

After clawing back votes and winning a dramatic recount, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s ruling party split a crucial by-election Thursday with Muslim fundamentalists who want to declare Malaysia a hardline Islamic state.

The archrivals were contesting the state assembly and national Parliament seats that came open after the recent death of Fadzil Noor, the leader of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party.

The fundamentalists retained the assembly seat and built a 2,000-vote lead in early counting for the parliamentary seat. But Mahathir’s ruling United Malays National Organization made up the deficit and pulled ahead.

The fundamentalists demanded a recount, which confirmed that the ruling party had won by 283 votes.

Though the result was divided, it amounted to a major victory for the ruling party, confirming that the fundamentalists have lost support since 1999, when they made gains due to public anger over the firing and jailing of Mahathir’s popular deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

Even in the state assembly seat, their victory margin fell to 508 votes Thursday from 1,840 three years ago. They won the parliamentary seat in 1999 by 2,934 votes.

“We have clearly seen a rise in support,” Mahathir said immediately after the final result was announced. “I believe this victory in Pendang is a good sign for the future.”

The contest was the first head-to-head fight between the parties since Sept. 11, which has raised fears of extremism among many of Malaysia’s 23 million people.

The fundamentalists claimed that voters endorse laws they propose that would punish adultery and sodomy by stoning, and theft with the amputation of hands and feet. Muslims who drink alcohol could be whipped 80 times.

The party says it would extend the laws to all Malaysians — Muslims or not — if it takes national power.

Mahathir, who has led Malaysia for 21 years, had hoped to wrest the seats on a sympathy vote from his announcement last month that he wants to retire. The seats in rural Kedah — his home state — had become an Islamic stronghold.

It is unclear whether his rivals’ weak showing will encourage Mahathir, 76, to call general elections before handing over power to his anointed successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in October 2003. The elections are not due until November 2004.

After the fundamentalists won the assembly seat, Mahfuz Omar, their youth leader, claimed that the victory showed support for Islamic laws.

“This victory is a slap in UMNO’s face, as they used money politics and abused the government facilities to thwart our Islamic struggle,” Mahfuz said.

The fundamentalist-controlled state of Terengganu passed the harsh laws last week, but Mahathir has vowed that the central government will not allow them to be enforced.

The election campaign largely turned over which party presented a truer version of Islam.

Mahathir contends that Malaysia is already an Islamic state, following tenets of tolerance that respect the rights of the country’s large, non-Muslim ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.

Under the constitution, Islam is the official religion, but government institutions remain secular.

Police backed by helicopters kept a lid on tensions during Thursday voting, but no serious incidents were reported.

Voter opinion reflected the split between moderates and hard-liners. Daud Sulaiman, 73, a farmer and Mahathir backer, said: “We’re all Muslims. Why must we quarrel?”

But 62-year-old housewife Rokiah Ahmad called Mahathir’s party “an enemy of Islam.”