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Big win gives Malaysia's Abdullah mandate for change
Updated: 2004-03-22 10:17

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's resounding victory over an Islamist opposition in parliamentary and state polls on Sunday has given him a mandate for change that will start with his cabinet.

When Abdullah took over in October from veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad, he was widely seen as a transitional leader.

But after one of the biggest wins in Malaysia's history, Abdullah should master his notoriously factional United Malays National Organization (UMNO).

"I'm confident to say there will be a few young faces in my cabinet," Abdullah told a news conference which followed jubilant scenes at his party's headquarters.

UMNO has led all of Malaysia's multi-ethnic alliances since independence from Britain in 1957. But the loss of more than half the popular Malay vote in the 1999 election raised questions whether it could still represent the ethnic Malay majority.

Abdullah laid those doubts to rest as he put the Islamist challenge of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) to flight in the Malay heartland states in the north of the peninsula.

Returned with a parliamentary majority of well over two thirds, the multi-ethnic Barisan Nasional coalition that UMNO heads can pass laws uncontested. The Barisan took 90 percent of the seats, with a handful of results still to come.

The success was matched in polls for provincial assemblies, with the ruling parties winning 12 of the 13 states.

Results in the last state, Kelantan, currently held by PAS, will be announced at about 10.00 a.m. (0200 GMT) on Monday after recounts in eight of the 45 seats.

Malay voters deserted UMNO in 1999 after Mahathir sacked and jailed his former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.

But the floodtide in favor of Abdullah also seemed to wipe out Keadilan, the party that sprang out of Anwar's reform movement and which was allied with PAS.

Anwar's wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, was also facing a recount in her seat, which was once occupied by her husband who is now serving a 15-year jail term for sodomy and abuse of power, and the party looked unlikely to win any other seats.

PAS had set the political agenda with its ambitions to turn a country where 40 percent of the people are non-Muslims into a strict Islamic state, governed by laws written centuries ago prescribing punishments such as stoning and amputation.

But the hardline preachers who lead PAS were unable to counteract the goodwill Abdullah generated during his first months in power through a campaign against corruption.

Hailing from a long line of Muslim scholars, Abdullah was able to command respect for his modern, tolerant views on Islam.

"We would like to promote Islam which is progressive and at the same time practices tolerance toward other non-Muslims in Malaysia," Abdullah told the post-victory news conference.

"And it seems to be an idea accepted by Muslims and non-Muslims."

The arrest of a cabinet minister and a well known businessman persuaded people Abdullah meant what he said, and there are strong expectations that bigger fish may be hauled in.

Domestic and foreign investors welcomed Abdullah's win, which had been priced into rising share and bond markets, but the margin of victory could excite more buying.

"The business community will be very happy, and so will foreign investors, because this means continuity in the pro-growth, moderate approach," said Choo Swee Kee, fund manager at KLCS Asset Management.

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