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Voting starts in Malaysia
Updated: 2004-03-21 14:36

Voting got underway on Sunday in Malaysia, where Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is seeking to turn back an Islamist challenge in northern states and to win nationwide backing for his campaign against corruption.

The ruling multi-racial Barisan Nasional coalition is sure of victory because of strong support from Malaysia's large ethnic minorities. Buddhist Chinese, Hindu Indians and Christians form 40 percent of the population.

But he needs to win back support from his own ethnic Muslim Malay majority to strengthen his leadership over the United Malays National Organization. UMNO has led every Barisan government since Malaysia's independence from Britain in 1957.

Abdullah took over the premiership last October when veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad retired to end 22 years of rule, and launched an anti-corruption campaign that won popular support as soon as he came into office.

He knows the pressure is on him to produce a convincing win to deter challengers in UMNO and halt the momentum of Parti Islam se-Malaysia (PAS) and its smaller ally, Parti Keadilan, which together took over half the Malay vote in 1999.

"If you are not going to give us a strong mandate, I don't know what is going to happen," Abdullah said in a telling remark on the eve of the election.

Abdullah, who comes from a long line of Muslim scholars, has projected a progressive, tolerant and inclusive brand of his religion during a campaign dominated by the role of Islam in multi-faith Malaysia.


The conservative preachers who lead PAS want to turn Malaysia into a strict Islamic state, with literal interpretations of laws dating back to the birth of the religion centuries ago, and including punishments like stoning and amputation.

Abdullah is widely expected to improve on the Barisan's showing in 1999, when it won a two-thirds parliamentary majority thanks to Chinese and Indian support.

But his performance may be judged on how the coalition fares in concurrent provincial assembly elections, with the Islamist opposition hoping to retain the two northern states it holds and capture one or two more.

"Day of Decision -- Real test will be in Malay belt states," was the headline in the New Sunday Times.

Malaysia has 13 states and two federal territories.

But the two states where the hardest battle will be fought are Kedah, where PAS is trying to wrest control from the Barisan, and Terengganu where Barisan is hoping to oust PAS.

PAS President and Chief Minister of Terengganu Abdul Hadi Awang canceled all his appearances on the last day of campaigning.

The 56-year old preacher complained of exhaustion, but he was among the first to cast a vote at his Marang constituency in northeast Malaysia on Sunday morning.

"I have a report we are going to win. We have seen some improvement," he told reporters as he left the polling station while small queues began to form under the morning sun.

Toppling Hadi in Terengganu would be a coup for Barisan, which lost the state in 1999, in what was regarded as a protest vote against the humiliation of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister sacked and later jailed following a challenge against Mahathir.

Anwar is serving a 15 year sentence, and the Keadilan party, led by his wife, champions his cause. But the issue has faded although there is still sympathy for him.

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