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Malaysia’s main party appoint Najib new leader

Posted on: March 26, 2009


Reuters – Thursday, March 26

By Razak Ahmad and David Chance

KUALA LUMPUR, March 26 – Malaysia’s main ruling party, still reeling from losses in last year’s election, appointed a new leader on Thursday to clean up and reform in order to reconnect with voters and avoid political “death”.

The United Malays National Organisation , the biggest party in the National Front coalition that has ruled Malaysia for 51 years, appointed Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak as party president with effect from Friday.

Najib, who has pledged to end endemic corruption in the party and enact economic reforms, already appears to have a battle on his hands to get the top officials he wants after the defeat of one of his preferred candidates on Wednesday.

Questions remain as to whether he can do any better than incumbent Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who rode a wave of popular enthusiasm after the end of Mahathir Mohamad’s 22-year rule and who won 90 percent of parliamentary seats in 2004 elections.

By 2008, Abdullah, who had also pledged reforms and to end corruption, was dead in the water and the National Front coalition recorded its worst-ever result in national and state polls, losing its two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Abdullah embraced his successor on stage at the UMNO annual congress and warned the party not to turn on Najib or “assassinate his character” as it did to him.

He also took a swipe at the old guard and Mahathir, whose sniping helped hasten his exit and who skipped the congress after his son lost out in the battle to be party youth chief.

“They believe that UMNO will regain its glory if we revert to the old ways — the old order, by restricting the freedom of our citizens and by silencing their criticism,” Abdullah said as he readied to hand over power.

The 2,509 delegates have already had a taste of defying the party leadership, voting in Abdullah’s son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, to head the youth wing of the party.

The youth wing has provided three of Malaysia’s prime ministers including Najib, who will be Malaysia’s sixth premier when he takes office in April.

Key votes for members of Najib’s team will take place throughout the day and hundreds of chanting supporters wearing colourful T-shirts and carrying pictures of their favoured candidates lined the route delegates took to the convention hall.

Among those seen as key to the economic reforms that Najib wants is International Trade Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who is standing as deputy president of UMNO and would also become deputy prime minister if elected.

Others, such as Foreign Minister Rais Yatim, standing as one of three vice presidents, are seen as throwbacks to Mahathir.

Delegates warned party leaders that power lay in their hands.

“They can only give us guidance but the decisions have to come from the delegates,” said Zulkiflee Bin Yahaya Nib, an UMNO division chief from the Penang state, one of those lost to the opposition in 2008.

A NEW TEAM, A NEW ERA?

Even if Najib can get reformers into key positions he will have a tough time pushing through change.

Just days after he becomes prime minister the National Front will have to face off against the opposition, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, in a parliamentary by-election and in two state by-elections on April 7.

Political tensions have reached boiling point in this Southeast Asian nation of 27 million people. The government has charged an opposition legislator with sedition, banned opposition newspapers and used riot police to break up rallies.

Investors are also watching closely to see if Malaysia can reform its economy under Najib.

The incoming premier has pledged to boost high-value services to reduce Malaysia’s dependence on exports of electronics, which account for nearly 40 percent of the total, and on commodities in what is Asia’s third most trade-dependent economy.

“Fundamentally there does need to be a reform in the way politics is done in Malaysia before the market and investors in general take these sorts of things seriously,” said IDEAglobal economist Philip McNicholas.

Najib also has been mauled on opposition-supporting internet sites who have linked him to the lurid murder of a Mongolian model, although there has been no evidence and Najib has repeatedly denied involvement.

(Additional reporting by Jennifer Henderson, Varsha Tickoo and Niluksi Koswanage; Editing by Paul Tait)

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