An upbeat mood is washing over rural Malaysia—and Prime Minister
Abdullah Badawi hopes to ride it to victory in the country's March 8
parliamentary election. Rising prices have put hard cash into the
hundreds of thousands of small farmers across the country. The boom
should translate into votes for Abdullah's government and for the
National Front, a coalition of more
than a dozen political parties that has held a majority in parliament
since the country became independent in 1957. "Vast stretches of rural
Malaysia are backing Mr. Abdullah," says political scientist Shamsul
Amri Baharuddin, professor of politics at the National University of
Malaysia. "A two-thirds majority seems assured."
Yet cracks are appearing within Malaysia's dominant political
machine. Recent racial tensions between the country's majority Malays
and minority Chinese and Indian populations could undercut support for
coalition candidates in the elections. The Chinese and Indians are
increasingly fed up
with the government�s longstanding affirmative-action policy that
Malays in everything from university education to government contracts.
Indians, the country's poorest ethnic group, accuse the government of
persistent racial discrimination and have over the past few months
taken to the streets in rare protests. On Saturday, hundreds of Indians
through Kuala Lumpur carrying roses they say symbolized their peaceful
intent. Malaysian police responded with water cannons and tear gas.
Rural voters may be doing well, but inflation is eroding the
purchasing power of urban Malaysians—and generating support for the
political opposition, whose spiritual leader is Anwar Ibrahim, a former
deputy Prime Minister who is temporarily barred from holding political
office because of a 1999
corruption conviction. Anwar's promise to reform the country�s
pro-Malay programs, under the slogan of 'We Are All Equal,' appeals to
many Chinese, who make up 30% of the country's 10.9 million voters.
"Life is more then just economic success," says opposition leader Lim
Kit Siang. "Justice, equality and humanity are important
No matter how attractive that message may be to those who feel
politically and economically marginalized, it won�t be enough to bring
down the government. Still, there are signs Abdullah may be trying to
the upcoming elections, Abdullah's ruling UMNO party is running a
younger crop of candidates with fewer ties to Former Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad, the architect of the country's affirmative-action
Abdullah says he needs "one or two more terms" to successfully complete
various economic projects he has started. One more term seems certain.
But how long his administration lasts after that may depend upon how
effectively the government addresses the concerns of Malaysia's
increasingly restive minorities.