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How Malaysia's PM fell from grace

By Robin Brant
BBC News, Kuala Lumpur

Abdullah Badawi said he had not been forced out.

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, right, talks to his deputy Najib Razak (left)
Mr Badawi (standing) is due to step down in March

When I asked him if he regretted being pushed, he gestured to the man sitting beside him, his deputy and heir Najib Razak, and to the other politicians around him from the ruling coalition.

He said: "Ask them if they have forced me out." A few shook their heads but Malaysia's fifth prime minister is not leaving office in March 2009 because he wants to. He is leaving because he has to.

There are still a few months to go but the epitaph will not be kind.

"He was weak, he was reluctant to do things which he should've done," says Chandra Muzaffar, a political analyst and academic.

After promising so much in 2004 when he secured a record victory at the polls, Dr Muzaffar believes Abdullah Badawi squandered a mandate for reform because he could not deliver.

"There is, I think, a personality factor at play - the reluctance on his part to antagonise people, to do things which a reform-minded prime minister will have to," he says.

'Power first'

The man who is almost certain to succeed him has been groomed for the job from the day he was born.

Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, September 2008
The government under Najib will be ruthless
Anwar Ibrahim
opposition leader

Najib Razak is the son of Malaysia's second prime minister. He has been in parliament since his early 20s.

"People expect him to be tougher," opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim told the BBC.

"The government under Najib will be ruthless."

He believes that little will change come next year when the handover takes place.

"Nothing is resolved, he is surrendering to a person who is badly tarnished," he told me.

That is a reference to sensational claims that the deputy prime minister was involved in the murder of a woman.

Najib Razak has strongly denied the allegation.

One of his closest advisors is on trial for the killing.

In an interview with the BBC last August, he did admit that there had been questions about his reputation but said: "I think I have cleared my name... my conscience is clear."

There are those who see this British-educated economist as the insider who can bring about change.

"Najib knows that if Umno [the United Malays National Organisation] and the Barisan Nasional [National Front] don't change, in the short term, they will be in deep trouble," says political analyst Dr Muzaffar.

But he believes that he will not promise a raft of radical reform, like the changes Abdullah Badawi promised for the judiciary and the corruption agency, adding:

"What impels him to bring about change is not so much a commitment to reform as a commitment to power."

Fatal slip

The reason Abdullah Badawi is going is because he came close to losing power.

In Malaysia's 51-year history that has never happened.

The same side has been in charge from Day One.

The country had continued its impressive economic growth under his watch.

But divisions which have haunted this multi-racial and multi-religious nation at times bubbled to the surface once more.

When his second general election as leader came around earlier this year, the people punished him.

Malaysia's minority Chinese and Indians deserted the government in droves. The prime minister was humiliated. The Barisan Nasional won but with a much reduced majority. Support for the opposition swelled to unprecedented levels.

In the days and weeks after the result, Abdullah Badawi faced down his critics.

Then came the first sign of mounting dissent in the ranks.

He agreed to hand over to his number two in 2010. That failed to allay the fears of those who thought the government was doomed unless it changed leader and direction.

So after months of in-fighting he is going, much earlier than he said he planned to go.

"In all my years of service, I've always been guided by my conscience - I've always placed the interests of the nation above all," Abdullah Badawi said as he announced his decision.

"It is with this in mind that I announce I will not be standing... in the coming party elections."

He said he was going to ensure unity.

End of the road

Unity is a crucial theme in Malaysia. This is a country of different races, different religions, with people of vastly differing wealth. For 51 years it has remained mostly stable and peaceful, but fundamental problems remain.

The increasing role of Islam, the religion of the Malay majority, worries the country's 35% non-Muslims.

A decades-old economic policy which gives preferential treatment to Malays still causes bitterness and anger. Malays can jump the queue for university places, government jobs and housing.

Abdullah Badawi's reign will stretch to almost six years by the time he steps down but he may be remembered most for events in the final months.

With an invigorated opposition threatening to take power, the prime minister and his government resorted to desperate acts.

An opposition member of parliament, a journalist and a prominent blogger were arrested and detained under strict security laws. They were deemed a threat to national security.

Anwar Ibrahim is facing a trail for sodomy, an accusation many believe is fabricated and politically motivated.

Malaysia is at a "historic crossroads" the prime minister said as he announced his departure.

"We must reform and mature," he added.

Now that responsibility will fall to someone else. The era of the man known affectionately as Pak Lah, meaning Uncle Abdullah, is almost over.




SEE ALSO
Malaysian PM 'to quit in March'
08 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Pressure builds on Malaysia's PM
26 Sep 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Anwar Ibrahim wins landslide vote
26 Aug 08 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Malaysia
11 Mar 08 |  Country profiles
Profile: Abdullah Ahmad Badawi
08 Oct 08 |  Asia-Pacific

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