Malaysia’s prime minister keeps nation guessing on intentions


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia’s prime minister kept the nation guessing Monday on whether he will step down soon amid a festering rebellion in the ruling party, saying he will announce his decision in a day or two.

Party members have clamored for fresh leadership after Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi led the government to its worst performance ever during general elections in March.

Speculation is that Abdullah will not last beyond March 2009, when the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, is scheduled to elect its top office bearers.

There are indications that Abdullah will not defend the post of party president, and by extension resign as prime minister.

“I will decide either tomorrow or Wednesday” whether to contest or not, Abdullah told reporters.

All five prime ministers since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957 have served as party president, while the deputy prime minister typically holds the second top post in the party’s leadership.

If Abdullah decides against contesting, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak is widely expected to be his replacement. The only other contender in the field, veteran politician Razaleigh Hamzah, is unlikely to get the nominations of a minimum of 58 district chiefs required to run for the top job.

Party members in the country’s 191 districts will begin meetings Thursday to decide on the nominations.

Abdullah said he will call a meeting of the 13-party National Front ruling coalition on Wednesday to discuss future plans.

“Our colleagues (in the National Front) have already indicated they would like to be briefed on what we are doing and what the plans are going to be,” Abdullah said, refusing to elaborate.

With Abdullah most likely to step aside, and Najib moving up one notch in the hierarchy, senior politicians have started scrambling for the No. 2 post in the ruling party. At least four politicians have publicly declared their intentions to contest with a few more on the sidelines.

When asked if this was healthy given that he has not yet declared his intention to withdraw from the race, Abdullah said, “It is their choice.”

“After a while some of them will drop out. After that there will be left only two, perhaps only one,” he said.

Nearly a dozen more will contest three vice presidential slots, while scores will vie for the 25-member Supreme Council policy-making body.

The United Malays National Organization, which represents majority ethnic Malays, has been the bedrock of Malaysia’s government for five decades but has been discredited since the March elections returned the party to power with a simple majority, instead of the two-thirds majority it has enjoyed since 1969.

The new party president’s task is cut out – to counter opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s three-party alliance which is threatening to topple the government through parliamentary defections.