- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR (AP) — Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi yesterday called an early national election that will pit the long-ruling secular coalition government against a fundamentalist Islamic opposition.

Mr. Abdullah will almost certainly extend his coalition’s 50-year grip on power. But he wants his own mandate as Malaysia’s first new leader in a generation and to reverse gains that the party’s biggest rival, the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, made at the last election in 1999.

The election comes as the government grapples with charges that a Malaysian company owned by the prime minister’s son played a key role in a nuclear black market, led by the father of Pakistan’s nuclear program, to traffic nuclear technology and know-how to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

In October, authorities seized a shipment of nuclear centrifuge parts bound for Libya that were manufactured by Scomi Precision Engineering, or Scope. The prime minister’s son, Kamaluddin Abdullah, owns a majority stake in an investment company that controls Scope.

A police probe cleared the company of knowingly making nuclear components.

The opposition plans to focus on the issue, but Mr. Abdullah’s campaign themes instead have been his promises to curb corruption and scale down the reported excesses from the era of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.

The government’s five-year term does not expire until November, but early elections have been expected since Mr. Mahathir left. Both government and opposition officials said they expect the election will be held March 20-21.

Voters will select 219 members of a new federal parliament and 505 representatives of legislatures in 12 of Malaysia’s 13 states.

Mr. Abdullah’s United Malays National Organization, which has supplied every prime minister since Malaysia’s independence from Britain in 1957, leads a 14-party ruling coalition that holds 152 of the 193 seats in the current parliament.

Moderate but with strong Islamic credentials, Mr. Abdullah is viewed as better suited than Mr. Mahathir to check the influence of the Pan-Malaysia Islamic Party, which wants to make Malaysia a theocracy and advocates a Taliban-style criminal code.

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