Monday, March 10, 2008

Malaysia's National Front Suffers Setback

Malaysia's opposition made significant gains in Saturday's elections. The alliance of three opposition parties led by former Finance Minister Anwar Ibrahim won 82 of 222 seats in the national Parliament, up from only 19 seats. By controlling one-third of Parliament, opposition parties will be able to block government efforts to amend the constitution. They also took control of five out of 13 states, up from one state previously. They included Penang, home to much of Malaysia's industrial base and to billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign investments. These elections were held amidst the usual allegations of vote rigging by international organizations such as the Human Rights Watch. The results signaled that Malaysia, one of the world's most economically advanced Muslim-majority nations and the U.S.'s 10th-largest trade partner, could become a model of peaceful democratic change in the Islamic world. Although the jury is still out, this perception is further reinforced by the recent Pakistani elections where the ruling coalition was trounced by the opposition.

Under the decades-long rule of Malaysia's National Front, Malaysian economy has been completely transformed from a natural-resource base to a modern industrial base. The former prime minister and a retired National Front leader Mahathir Mohamad founded the regional alliance ASEAN along with former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yu of Singapore and late President Suharto of Indonesia. The three leaders, credited with the rapid economic and industrial development of the region, ruled with an iron hand for a long time. The current Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was abruptly removed as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, jailed and tortured by Mr. Mahathir Mohamad during his term in office.

As Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal reports, the spread of uncensored new media, such as the Internet and cell-phone text messaging, helped opposition parties break the government's stranglehold on information flow, harnessing public anger over mounting inflation, widespread corruption and inept governance. Combined with rising resentment by ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities over long-standing affirmative-action policies designed to benefit the country's Muslim ethnic Malay majority, this anger coalesced into a perfect storm of protest against Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's government.

Mr. Abdullah is now facing growing pressure to step down. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who named Mr. Abdullah to replace him in 2003, also demanded the premier's head, accusing him of "destroying" the National Front.

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