Malaysian leader strengthens hand in party polls

AFP , Sunday 20 Oct 2013

Malaysia's PM Najib Razak responded by advocating political and economic reforms to win back support, but has been restricted by hardliners keen to protect Malay dominance

Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak arrives for an election campaign rally at his constituency in Pekan, 300 km east of Kuala Lumpur, 4 May 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak strengthened his hand in ruling-party elections but analysts said questions remain over his stop-start plans to reform Southeast Asia's third-largest economy amid resistance from conservatives.

Najib was unopposed as president of the long-ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in the party's polls, the final results of which were tallied late Saturday.

But other posts were closely watched to determine whether Najib was losing ground to powerful conservatives upset with his earlier pledge to liberalise a controversial system of preferences for the Muslim Malay majority, and other reforms.

Analysts said Najib appeared to have held off conservatives, for now.

"On the surface of it, Najib's leadership of the party is undisputed," said Ibrahim Suffian, director of leading polling organisation Merdeka Centre.

"His team will be able to push some reforms, but the right-wing element of the party is not extinguished. There will have to be some compromise."

The Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, through which UMNO has ruled the multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority country for decades, has won national elections by diminishing margins as voters tire of its race-based politics and authoritarian rule.

Najib, now 60 and in office since 2009, responded by advocating political and economic reforms to win back support, but has been restricted by hardliners keen to protect Malay dominance.

Najib has already backtracked on key reform moves including a cautious pledge to water down UMNO's decades-old affirmative-action policies for Malays in education, housing, and economic opportunities.

The system is resented by the sizeable ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities and economists view it as a drag on national competitiveness.

Najib was seen to be under heightened pressure from UMNO right-wingers since May elections in which he led Barisan to its worst polls showing ever, though it clung to power.

But the three party vice-presidents, who are close to Najib, defended their positions, narrowly fending off a challenge by Mukhriz Mahathir, son of conservative former strongman leader Mahathir Mohamad.

Ooi Kee Beng, deputy director of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, said Najib had a firmer mandate but may be held back by his "own timidity".

"It's a mixed bag where reforms are concerned. I don't think UMNO or Najib himself is totally clear where they want Malaysia to go," he said.

Mahathir ruled Malaysia from 1981 to 2003 with an iron fist, developing it from a rural backwater to an economic success, but was widely accused of trampling rights and allowing corruption to flourish.

Though retired, he is now viewed as the focus of conservative resistance to reforms.

Barisan has steadily ceded parliamentary ground in recent elections to a multi-racial opposition alliance.

The alliance advocates an end to corruption and UMNO authoritarianism, and replacing the race-based Malay preferences with needs-based social aid.

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