- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA (AP) - Malaysia’s prime minister, in office for 5 1/2 lackluster years, resigned Thursday to make way for his deputy who must now fix an economy close to recession, heal the country’s deep racial divisions and revive a moribund ruling party.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, 69, submitted his resignation to the king, the constitutional monarch, as part of a power transition dictated by the ruling United Malays National Organization to have Najib Razak installed as the next leader.

The king accepted the resignation and will swear in Deputy Prime Minister Najib, a 55-year-old British-educated politician, as the new prime minister on Friday, said the chief secretary to the government, Sidek Hassan.

But in a sign of possible trouble to come, the country’s three opposition parties sent a joint petition to the king asking him to delay Najib’s swearing-in until he has been cleared of allegations of corruption and links to a murder case.

“Such an important post must be given to an individual who is clean and whose integrity is not questionable,” said the petition.

Abdullah took office in October 2003, riding a huge wave of popularity as he replaced Mahathir Mohamad, a manipulative and sharp-tongued leader who brooked no opposition or dissent during 22 years in office.

In contrast, the soft-spoken Abdullah captured the hearts of Malaysians with promises of reforms in the judiciary, police force and civil service. He pledged greater political freedom and more political space for critics, and vowed to end corruption.

Most promises fell by the wayside although he ushered in limited freedom of speech, freeing up the media and permitting anti-government public demonstrations.

Conservatives in his party say that was his undoing as it bolstered the newly resurgent opposition led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

In the March 2008 elections, the ruling National Front coalition suffered its worst results in the 51 years it has been in power. It failed to get a two-thirds majority for the first time in 40 years, conceding 82 seats to the opposition in the 222-member Parliament. It also lost an unprecedented five states.

The loss was largely a result of ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities switching allegiances to Anwar as they chaffed against decades-old policies that give preference to majority Malays in jobs, education and business.

The election loss divided the United Malays National Organization, the main component of the National Front. Ultimately dissidents forced Abdullah out.

“It is very difficult to say Abdullah has left behind a legacy of reforms,” political analyst Khoo Kay Peng told The Associated Press. “He had the ambition (to introduce reforms), but he lacked political will and leadership control.”

But Najib will have a tough time healing the country’s politics, society and economy.

“Clearly he has got to be able to demonstrate that an UMNO-led government is able to govern a multiracial Malaysia,” said Khoo, adding, “he must really put the economy back on track.”

Malaysia’s economy has been hit badly by the global financial crisis and is expected to shrink by 1 percent in 2009.

Najib’s personal reputation also has been called into question.

The opposition has repeatedly accused Najib of corruption in a deal to buy French submarines when he was defense minister. It has also alleged he was linked to the killing of a Mongolian woman, who was the estranged lover of a close friend. Najib has denied the allegations as “malicious lies.”


Associated Press writers Julia Zappei and Eileen Ng contributed to this report.

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