Malaysia PM to call for snap poll

Feb 13, 2008

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has received consent from the country’s king to dissolve parliament and call for fresh elections, a source close to the prime minister said on Wednesday.
Separately, an aide to the premier said Abdullah would hold a news conference later on Wednesday at 12:30 pm local time (0430 GMT), though he declined to give further details.
A senior editor at television station TV3 said the channel was on standby to air an important announcement from the premier.
The source said the Election Commission would decide on the poll date in the coming days, but it was likely to be held within the first 10 days of March.
Elections are not due until May 16, 2009, but analysts say they expect Abdullah to call for polls before the trade-dependent economy begins to slow and inflation picks up steam.
A March election would also cut out de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, who is barred from standing for public office until April because of his past criminal conviction, though Abdullah denies this is an influence on poll timing.
“The PM actually wanted to dissolve parliament next week but the Agong (king) is leaving overseas this evening for a private holiday, so last night he (the prime minister) changed his mind,” the source said.
“He went to see the king at 9 am (0100 GMT) today and the king gave his consent for the dissolution.”
In power since 2003, Abdullah is trying to shore up his own popularity, which has dented by public anger over rising prices, street crime and an influx of cheap foreign labour.
Abdullah, who took over from Mahathir Mohamad, led his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to a record victory in 2004 elections on a pledge to clean up government.
But he said recently the coalition, which has ruled since independence in 1957, was unlikely to repeat its 2004 performance amid growing unease among ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities.
Young and restless? A snapshot of Malaysia’s voters
Who? Relatively young, and mostly Malay. Voting age is 21 and the median age in Malaysia is 25 years. The ethnic makeup of the country of 26 million is Malay 50.4%, Chinese 23.7%, indigenous 11.0%, Indian 7.1%.
What? Some 222 federal parliamentary seats in 13 states are up for grabs, as well as seats in each state legislature except for Sarawak which held its state election in 2006. Under the winner-takes-all system, voters choose one candidate for parliament and one for the state assembly, with the majority-winning party forming the federal or state government.
How many? Around 10.3 million voters registered for the 2004 polls. The electoral commission said in January it wanted to sign up 4.5 million eligible voters, mostly youths, before the next polls. At the same time it is purging about half a million “phantom voters” – who use the details of dead or double-counted voters to vote outside their constituency – from its rolls, the election chief said.
Where? Twenty-one million of the country’s 26 million people live in peninsular, or West, Malaysia’s 11 states and three federal territories, and the rest on the Malaysian portion of Borneo island, in East Malaysia’s two states – Sabah and Sarawak. Critics accuse the government of gerrymandering through contentious constituency redelineations, which saw Barisan Nasional strongholds such as Johor and Sabah gain extra seats, while opposition controlled areas did not.
Fair? Opposition parties complain that the electorate is gerrymandered in favour of mainly rural Malays, who have limited access to independent sources of information and tend to support the main ruling party. In the 2004 election, the governing coalition won 90% of parliamentary seats with 64% of the vote. The mainstream press is also pro-government and gives opposition statements relatively thin coverage.
How enthusiastic? Voting is not compulsory, and turnout fluctuates. Holidays are declared when the election day does not fall on a weekend to encourage participation.
An overview of Malaysia’s political history
Independence: Malaya, the 11 states in the Malay Peninsula that formed the southern-most tip of mainland Asia, gained independence from Britain on August 31, 1957. It was then a leading producer of commodities such as tin and rubber. Led by the Tunku Abdul Rahman, an affable prince from Kedah state, Malaya prospered. It merged with the Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah and Singapore to form Malaysia on September 16, 1963.
Turbulent sixties: Politics and a personality clash between Tunku Abdul Rahman and Singapore’s then leader, Lee Kuan Yew, saw the island state separate from Malaysia in August 1965. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s ruling Alliance coalition suffered major setbacks in the May 12, 1969 elections, leading to racial riots a day later. No precise fatality figures have ever been given for the riots between ethnic Malay and Chinese communities, which caused parliament to be suspended for nearly two years as Malaysia was governed by emergency decree. Tunku Abdul Rahman, who once described himself as “the happiest prime minister in the world”, resigned a year later, giving way to deputy Abdul Razak Hussein.
Coalition consolidates power: Abdul Razak expanded the original Alliance coalition of three parties to include others such as the Islamist Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) to contest the 1974 general elections.The new-look coalition, known as the Barisan Nasional or National Front, won, and Abdul Razak embarked on an agricultural drive, emphasising oil palm estates. Abdul Razak died of leukaemia while still in office in January 1976. His deputy, Hussein Onn, became Malaysia’s third prime minister. PAS left the expanded coalition as Hussein’s United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) made inroads into Kelantan, its stronghold state. The National Front trounced PAS in Kelantan in the 1978 elections, but PAS regained control of the state in 1990.
The rise of Mahathir: Hussein resigned for health reasons in July 1981 and his deputy, Mahathir Mohamad, who was once sacked from UMNO for criticising Tunku Abdul Rahman in his book, “The Malay Dilemma”, became prime minister. During Mahathir’s 22-year term, the longest by a Malaysian prime minister, he modernised the commodities-dependent economy that he inherited with industries ranging from electronics to vehicle manufacturing. He also built extensive infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports and the world’s tallest twin towers, the Petronas Twin Towers.
Asian crisis and beyond: The 1997 Asian economic crisis put a damper on break-neck development, but Mahathir’s controversial capital controls paid off, and Malaysia made a stronger recovery than some neighbours. Mahathir retired on October 31, 2003 in favour of his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Despite poor health he continues to be an outspoken political presence, sniping at his successor. Abdullah won the last elections in March 2004 by a landslide. Barisan Nasional took 12 of the country’s 13 states, and more than 90% of seats in parliament, though with 63.8 percent of the vote. In April 2006 he unveiled the Ninth Malaysia Plan, an economic blueprint for 2006-2010.