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Malaysian turmoil may delay polls

india Updated: Dec 09, 2007 11:29 IST

AFP
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Malaysians have been braced for elections in the new year, but two major street protests and looming fuel hikes have left the government bruised and unlikely to call polls any time soon, analysts say.

Political insiders say Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is under pressure from his party to deliver its strongest ever showing, but he now faces the task of garnering support from a nation shaken by the demonstrations.

"Given the rallies, racial issues and the expected fuel price hikes, general elections appear unlikely until after the middle of next year," said Fazil Mohamad Som, analyst with the World Islamic Economic Forum.

"The prime minister has a lot of issues on his plate to consider and deciding on an election date won't be easy."

Public protests are rare in Malaysia, and the government has been badly rattled by last month's pair of rallies -- one demanding electoral reform and the other airing the grievances of the ethnic Indian minority.

Police fired tear gas and used water cannons at both demonstrations, and used batons to beat some of the 8,000 ethnic Indian protesters -- triggering criticism from as far as New Delhi.

The government, a multi-racial coalition led by Abdullah's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), has been forced to defend its treatment of ethnic Indians who make up eight per cent of the population.

They have been loyal supporters of the multiracial Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government since independence 50 years ago, but activists say they are now demanding action after years of being ignored and marginalised.

"The government really needs to address the concerns of this underdeveloped group if it hopes to get the continued loyalty of the Indians in the upcoming elections," said political analyst Khoo Kay Peng.

"They want a voice and they want change," he said. "In light of all this, I don't believe that the prime minister can call for elections so early in the year."

Lawmakers have expressed dismay at the half-a-dozen rallies which have been mounted in the past year, as everyone from lawyers to highway toll opponents have become emboldened to make their views public.

"There must be somebody planning something behind the scenes," Hishammuddin Hussein, the influential UMNO youth chief told the Star newspaper of the demonstrations that have drawn crowds of up to 30,000.

The government is also intent on carrying out deeply unpopular plans to dismantle fuel subsidies which provide Malaysians with some of the cheapest petrol in Southeast Asia.

Sharp fuel price hikes last year -- in a country with poor public transport where most people depend on their vehicles -- triggered the first of the large street protests.

"Malaysians rely heavily on oil and they have come to expect the government to subsidise and keep prices low. So this new increase will not go down well at all and BN will pay a political price," said Khoo.

Another key issue is corruption -- a scourge which Abdullah promised to tackle when he took over four years ago, but which many critics say he has failed to address.

"At the moment Abdullah is seen as Mr Clean and it is some ministers and the civil service that is viewed as corrupt," Fazil said.

"But if it is shown that Abdullah was involved in covering up or legitimising the present situation, he will lose the support of the people and this could translate to a sizeable loss of seats at the next general election.