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Tuesday, 30 November, 1999, 18:47 GMT
Malaysia's opposition: Breaking the mould?
A growing number of Malays have turned to the opposition Islamic party

By Asia analyst Kieran Cooke

Malaysia's Snap Election
Politicians and political pundits in Malaysia are busy digesting the results of Monday's general election.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's National Front coalition scored a convincing win and once again secured its two thirds majority in the country's parliament. But the opposition also achieved some notable successes and is convinced that it is starting to break the traditional mould of Malaysian politics.

The traditional way Malaysia has been governed has been fairly simple: the Muslim Malays, who form a majority of the population, have held most senior government positions and run the bureaucracy.

Under pressure: Time for Dr Mahathir to move on?
The Chinese, who make up about 33% of the population, exert a powerful influence on the economy, while the smaller Indian community has little political power or economic clout.

The United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the party led by Dr Mahathir which has dominated the country's political life ever since independence from British rule in 1957, has always seen itself as the party of the Malays.

It has always been confident of securing the Malay vote and thus maintaining its tight grip on power - until now.

Malay heartland

The most startling feature of this election is the swing against Dr Mahathir and the Umno dominated National Front in the so-called Malay heartland - the four northern peninsula states of Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis.

Some Malays feel Dr Mahathir is not sufficiently Islamic
The Front, despite a massive and costly propaganda blitz in the region, failed to wrest control of Kelantan from the strongly Islamic Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas).

Even more troubling for Dr Mahathir was the loss of Terengganu to Pas, and a sharp drop in support reflected in both Perlis and Kedah, the prime minister's home state.

This has serious implications for Umno. Some Malays undoubtedly exercised a protest vote, using the election to register their concern about what they see as the growing corruption and nepotism in Dr Mahathir's administration.

They were also expressing their anger at what they feel has been the unjust treatment of Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed former deputy prime minister.

Then there are the Malays who feel Dr Mahathir's administration is not sufficiently Islamic - they want a more rigid adherence to the Islamic way of life.

Islamic nation

Umno party stalwarts will now demand some action to stop any further slide in support amongst Malays.

The difficulty for Dr Mahathir is that any moves towards making Malaysia a more Islamic nation could raise fears amongst the Chinese community, which, in this election, has been a critical factor in the National Front victory.

Further, Dr Mahathir has always insisted that moves towards a more Islamic way of life would frighten away much needed foreign investors and depress living standards.

Umno might now want Dr Mahathir to lessen his grip on power in an effort to win back Malay support, particularly among young voters.

There have been whisperings in the party that Dr Mahathir, in power for the past 18 years and in his mid-70's, is out of touch with a rapidly growing young Malay electorate.

In touch

It is time, they say, for a younger, less paternalistic leader more in touch with young people.

Though the prime minister shows no sign of wanting to step down and has his hands, at least for now, firmly on the levers of power, those whisperings within Umno for his removal are likely to grow in the months ahead.

There is one other critical factor in this election: in gaining control in Terengganu, the Islamic Pas party has taken power in potentially one of the country's richest states.

Terengganu serves as the base for much of Malaysia's offshore oil and gas industry.

Dr Mahathir has used funds from that industry to pump prime the economy and as a war chest for his political campaigns.

Now Pas not only has more political power, it has more financial clout as well. The outlook for Dr Mahathir - and Umno - is certainly not all positive.
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See also:
29 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Eyewitness: Malaysia's day of decision
12 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Malaysia's electoral showdown
10 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Profile: Malaysia's strongman Mahathir
15 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Analysis: The challenge for Malaysia's reformers
22 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Wan Azizah: Malaysia's opposition torch-bearer
11 Nov 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Party guide: Malaysia's opposition alliance

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