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Officials set tone for a short election campaign in Malaysia

Malaysia's snap parliamentary election will be held on March 21, officials announced, leaving little time for the fundamentalist Islamic opposition to mount a campaign offensive against incumbent Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

india Updated: Mar 08, 2004 13:37 IST

Malaysia's snap parliamentary election will be held on March 21, officials announced, leaving little time for the fundamentalist Islamic opposition to mount a campaign offensive against incumbent Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

The Election Commission also set March 13 as the day candidates must lodge their nominations, leaving an official campaign period of about one week.

The short campaign was expected to benefit the already heavily favored Abdullah, who took over four months ago when longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad retired after 22 years in power. Abdullah called the snap elections on Wednesday.

Opposition groups say a short campaign is unfair to them because they don't have the same resources as the government and need more time to reach prospective supporters. One opposition leader urged the commission to allow a campaign of at least three weeks. Election Commission Chairman Abdul Rashid Abdul Rahman said a short campaign _ among the quickest in Malaysia's history _ was needed to deliver a legitimate government with the minimum disruption to the country.

"We are doing this in the national interest," he told a news conference. "Any period of uncertainty should not be lengthened unnecessarily."

Unofficial campaigning gained pace as the voting date was announced. The fundamentalist Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party rallied in its northern strongholds, without incident; Abdullah prepared to travel to his home district to make his first major campaign appearance Saturday.

Police have said more than 56,000 officers will be deployed throughout Malaysia to monitor the campaign, and Abdul Rashid urged all parties and their supporters to act peacefully. Though Malaysia is mostly placid, police and opposition supporters clashed repeatedly at rallies during the last election in 1999, one of the country's fieriest.

Abdullah has made fighting corruption and achieving more efficient, open government his campaign themes, recently launching a probe into police graft and approving the arrest of a Mahathir-linked tycoon and one junior minister on misappropriation charges.

The Islamic party wants to dent Abdullah's "clean" image by focusing on a nuclear trafficking scandal involving a firm controlled by his son.

The party has vowed to contrast how police recently cleared Scomi Precision Engineering, a firm majority-controlled by Abdullah's son, of knowingly making nuclear parts for Libya against the way some 70 terror suspects have been jailed without trial since 2001. Abdul Hadi Awang, the cleric president of the Islamic party, said he suspected a cover up of the Scomi investigation and accused the United States of not demanding a fuller investigation because Washington wants Abdullah to defeat his party at the election. "There is sympathy from the United States," Hadi told reporters Friday in northern Terengganu state. "U.S. foreign policy is to protect its interests and they will never allow the establishment of an Islamic government anywhere."

At a news conference late Thursday, Abdullah dismissed the attacks.

"I think PAS just wants to find something to attack me and embarrass me," he said, using the opposition party's acronym. "They are trying to resort to character assassination. They have nothing else to capitalize on."

The opposition has accused the government of whitewashing the investigation in clearing the company of responsibility in manufacturing centrifuge components that were seized en route to Libya.

The seizure was central to uncovering the black market network, led by the father of Pakistan's nuclear program, to supply Libya, Iran and North Korea with nuclear technology and know-how. Police have blamed Buhary Syed Abu Tahir, a Sri Lankan businessman who brokered the deal, saying he deceived Scomi that the parts were being made for the oil-and-gas industry in Dubai. But they say Tahir broke no local laws and remains at liberty in Malaysia.

Abdullah, whose mild-mannered image contrasts with the charismatic Mahathir's, will almost certainly extend his secular, multi-ethnic coalition's half-century grip on power. But he wants his own mandate as leader and to reverse gains by the Islamic party in 1999.

Voters will select 219 members of a new federal Parliament and 505 representatives of legislatures in 12 of Malaysia's 13 states. Abdullah's coalition holds 152 of the 193 current parliamentary seats.

First Published: Mar 08, 2004 13:37 IST