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Friday, March 12, 1999 Published at 23:24 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Mahathir slugs it out in 'Wild East'

Almost 200 candidates are contesting 48 seats

By News Online's Joe Havely

State elections in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah have galvanised the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad into action.

For a poll that will have no direct effect on the overwhelming four-fifths majority he holds in the federal parliament, the prime minister has poured vast amounts of time and political resources into the campaign.

[ image: Dr Mahathir has been out and about pressing the flesh]
Dr Mahathir has been out and about pressing the flesh
The two-day vote has been pushed to the centre stage of Malaysian politics because it constitutes the first electoral test Dr Mahathir's coalition government has faced since he sacked his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, back in September.

For Asia's longest serving ruler, the election of a new provincial government in a remote, largely jungle-covered corner of Borneo has been transformed into the toughest political challenge of his recent career.

Even partly officials publicly admit to the prospect of an uncomfortably close result.

Litmus test

[ image:  ]
The vote is being widely interpreted as a litmus test for the government's popularity after a year of social and economic turmoil.

Political analysts in Malaysia, abroad and - most critically - in Dr Mahathir's own party will be scrutinising the results for signs of any shift in political trends.

Dr Mahathir has faced severe criticism and unprecedented anti-government protests over his approach to the Anwar case and his handling of Malaysia's economy, which has taken a severe battering from Asia's economic downturn.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad: The state government must work closely with us
As an indication of the importance he attaches to retaining power in Sabah, Dr Mahathir flew to the state no less than three times during the final two weeks of campaigning.

Accompanying him were most of his senior ministers and pledges of millions of dollars in development grants.

Rough and tumble

[ image: Allegations of electoral fraud have been made against the government]
Allegations of electoral fraud have been made against the government
In more stable times, Sabah was largely left to its own devices by the federal government.

Politics in what is often called Malaysia's Wild East has frequently been a rough and tumble affair but apart from rumblings over possible independence its significance has rarely travelled beyond state-level.

Sabah has also been largely unaffected by the reformasi movement in the peninsular sparked by the Anwar case, the dominant issues instead being those of state rights and the grievances of the majority Christian Kadazandusun ethnic community.

PBS party leader Joseph Pairin: "We're in a very dangerous situation here"
Nonetheless an electoral defeat in one of Malaysia's least developed provinces would represent a severe psychological blow for Dr Mahathir's government and this year's campaigning, has been unusually fierce.

Accusations of bribery

[ image:  ]
As Dr Mahathir continued his whirlwind tours of the state, opposition parties accused officials from the ruling National Front coalition of involvement in vote rigging, bribery and even threats of violence.

With the campaign becoming increasingly bitter, Dr Mahathir replied with a thinly veiled warning against voting for the opposition PBS telling voters only his party could ensure the continuation of state development programmes.

The federal government, he said, would "only give to the BN [National Front] government in Sabah. We will not help the opposition since we do not receive any assistance from them."

[ image: Candidates are ploughing massive resources into the campaign]
Candidates are ploughing massive resources into the campaign
PBS leader Joseph Pairin Kitingan says this amounts to the prime minister threatening sanctions against his own country.

Mr Kitingan won Sabah's last state election in 1994. But he was pushed out of office weeks later when most of his party's deputies defected to the National Front after allegedly receiving sizeable bribes.

Now the PBS is hoping to capitalise on the federal government's unpopularity.

Phantom voters

[ image: Sabah has been politically isolated from the turmoil surrounding the Anwar trial]
Sabah has been politically isolated from the turmoil surrounding the Anwar trial
It says its officials have uncovered an effort by the Front to infiltrate 30,000 "phantom voters" on to the electoral register, and accuses Dr Mahathir's officials of employing widespread bribery to woo both voters and candidates.

The recently formed social rights group ADIL, headed by Mr Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, has also accused the government of using threats and intimidation in a desperate bid to win votes.

"This is dirty politics," she said.

Chairman of Electoral Commission, Harun Din: "There could be certain people there who should not be there"
Electoral officials have admitted that some degree of corruption may have passed unnoticed but its extent will be hard to judge

Whatever the case it may all be rendered meaningless in the political horse-trading and changing allegiances that will almost inevitably follow the results.

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