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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

The Guessing Game
Malaysia is kept on tenterhooks over the elections
By ARJUNA RANAWANA Kuala Lumpur

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia When will Malaysia's much-awaited general elections be held? For many months Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has kept the country in suspense about a snap poll. By law the elections must be held by August 2000, but many are predicting that they will come earlier - possibly as early as next month. The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition has been officially in "election mode" for over three months. On Oct. 24, Barisan is set to hold its 25th-anniversary celebrations in Kuala Lumpur; on the same day, Barisan will launch its computer preparations for the elections. "Everything seems to point to an early election," says Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, acting head of the Youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in Barisan.

The shadows of Mahathir and his sacked deputy Anwar Ibrahim loom large. The elections will pit Mahathir's Barisan, which holds 166 seats in the 192-seat Parliament, against the pro-Anwar Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front), an opposition alliance that includes Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Nasional. The alliance has said Anwar would be its prime ministerial candidate should it come to power.

    ALSO IN ASIAWEEK
Special Report: People's Will?
Coalitions, caucuses, even a coup - democracy in Asia is getting more complicated and messy. Are the people's demands still getting through?

Pakistan: Here We Go Again After grabbing power for the fifth time in 52 years, Pakistan's generals may put in place a civilian government sooner rather than later

Timeline The ups and downs of Pakistan's recent history

Indonesia Win or lose, B.J. Habibie stands in the shadows

Malaysia Speculation continues over the election date

Precedent Can Anwar run for Parliament from Prison?

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Speculations over the elections were heightened by the Oct. 9 meeting that was convened by the UMNO Supreme Council. "Everybody is ready," Mahathir told reporters after the meeting. "I only have to do this [click my fingers] and the election campaign will start."

But insiders say that the mood was slightly less confident during the meeting. Asiaweek has learned that when presenting their "election readiness" reports, most delegates indicated that they were not entirely convinced that they could guarantee an overwhelming victory for Barisan. Mahathir, a source says, "doesn't want to just have a simple win. We can win any time. The PM wants to win big and retain Barisan's two-thirds majority." Some of the delegates reported that a significant number of voters remain unconvinced about the guilt of Anwar, who has been convicted of corruption and is now on trial for sodomy. Others sought time, saying that the current trial should be concluded before an election campaign is launched.

The reports have led the Supreme Council to launch a campaign to counter what Mahathir calls "fitnah" (slander) against the party. In a press conference afterwards, the PM asserted: "We need to expose all the lies told by the opposition. This campaign will go on until the general election." He also expressed his annoyance at the voters for heeding the opposition's message: "These people are so gullible. They are willing to believe anything." According to Information Minister Khalil Yaakob, the counter-campaign will make use of new radio and TV programs.

Opposition leaders are pleased at UMNO's reaction. "This shows the government is not confident," says Keadilan deputy president Chandra Muzaffar. "That is why the prime minister is postponing the election." DAP leader Lim Kit Siang says that the latest move shows "that even so late in the day, the government campaign has not reached the people. And this new campaign will be an excuse to spread lies and slander against the opposition."

Most observers expect the elections to be held either in November this year or in February 2000. "People are now saying that Parliament can be dissolved after the tabling of the Budget [on Oct. 29], and the elections could be in the second week of November," says Abdul Razak Abdullah Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center. Elections can be held as little as 11 days after Parliament is dissolved - with four days for nominations and six days for campaigning. According to one source, a likely date for the dissolution of Parliament is Nov. 3, with the polls following about a fortnight later. But if no announcement materializes soon after the Budget is tabled, then the elections are not likely to be called until February - after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the subsequent Hari Raya celebrations and the Chinese New Year are over.

While the upcoming polls are widely seen as a continuation of the Mahathir-Anwar struggle, some feel that the real issue is not so much Anwar himself but the question marks his ouster has raised over justice and fairness in Malaysian society. "People are sympathetic to Anwar, but it has gone beyond Anwar," says one political analyst. "Don't look at Anwar, but look at the police and the judiciary." The challenge for Barisan now is to erase those question marks in the time it has left.

- With reporting by Santha Oorjitham / Kuala Lumpur

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