Friday, March 7, 2008

Race, religion stirs pot in Malay election

Race, religion stirs pot in Malay election

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) -- Campaigning wrapped up Friday for general elections that could see gains for Malaysia's opposition amid anger over race and religion among minority Chinese and Indians.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi's coalition appeared certain to win Saturday's elections as it has for decades.

However, analysts predicted the opposition would win between 35 and 38 seats in parliament, nearly doubling its 19-seat share of the 289-seat body amid growing disenchantment among ethnic minorities who complain of discrimination.

Abdullah has been accused of failing to properly manage inflation, crime, corruption and, most importantly, ethnic tensions between the majority Malays and ethnic minorities.

"There should be a swing in these seats," said Tricia Yeoh, director of the Center for Public Policy Studies think tank. "The Chinese and Indian votes will be the important swing votes."

A reduced majority for the National Front would be seen as a personal rebuke for Abdullah, who has lost much of the goodwill he had when he replaced longtime leader Mahathir Mohamad in 2003.

On Friday, Abdullah met fishermen and visited a mosque in the northern state of Penang, while his deputy, Najib Razak, inaugurated a health clinic and met schoolteachers and senior citizens in eastern Pahang.

"Every time you face the election, you get some degree of anxiety because we cannot assume that victory is in our hands," Najib told reporters.

At stake are 222 seats in parliament, along with legislatures in 12 of Malaysia's 13 states.

Muslim Malays make up 60 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people, and form the bulk of voters for Abdullah's United Malays National Organization.

The party dominates the National Front coalition, which includes Chinese- and Indian-based parties in a power-sharing arrangement that has ensured racial peace in this multiethnic country.

The National Front has won every election since independence in 1957.

Minorities object to a 37-year-old affirmative action program for Malays that continues despite their rising standards of living. The program, instituted after deadly race riots in 1969, gave Malays preference in government jobs, business and education to help them catch up with the wealthier Chinese.

The Chinese and Indians are also angry at a string of court decisions in religious disputes that have gone in favor of Malays, and Indians were infuriated by the demolition of Hindu temples by authorities last year. E-mail to a friend.

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