Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Tighter Grip in Malaysia

In Slowing Economy, Pressure Rises on Foes of Incoming Premier

By JAMES HOOKWAY

The Malaysian government suspended two opposition-party newspapers without explanation Monday, fueling charges that Deputy Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak is trying to silence opponents as he prepares to become prime minister next month.

Opposition politicians and some political analysts say Mr. Najib has been working to sideline potential rivals, including those within his own party, as Malaysia -- an important U.S. trading partner -- begins to feel the full brunt of the global economic crisis. Some economists project a 4% contraction this year.

[A Tighter Grip in Malaysia]

Mr. Najib, the 55-year-old British-educated son of Malaysia's second prime minister, is running unopposed for his party's presidency at a party assembly this week, and in that role is expected to become prime minister in early April. Since last year, when Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi declared his intention to step down, Mr. Najib has emerged as Malaysia's most powerful politician.

A number of politicians whom analysts perceive as loyal to Mr. Abdullah were banned from contesting senior party posts at this week's assembly of the United Malays National Organization because of allegations of corruption, improving Mr. Najib's chances of a tighter grip over UMNO party politics. UMNO is the main party in the coalition that has run Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, whose party's publication was one of those suspended, says the closures were intended to silence criticism of Mr. Najib's premiership, which is expected to begin in early April. The suspensions "are part of a disturbing trend which reflect what Mr. Najib is all about," he says.

Mr. Anwar, a former deputy prime minister, says he believes the three-month shutdown of the newspapers was partially intended to stop reporting of allegations of corruption in weapons purchases for Malaysia's armed forces while Mr. Najib was defense minister.

Mr. Najib, who didn't respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, has said there was no corruption in the purchases.

Opponents say UMNO leaders are steering the country back into its authoritarian past to thwart any public backlash against the ruling coalition as the nation's economy slows.

"We believe we are in for more punitive measures" when Mr. Najib takes power, Mr. Anwar said after the newspaper suspensions. On Monday evening, riot police fired tear gas to break up a political rally led by Mr. Anwar in northern Malaysia, according to local media and Mr. Anwar's aides. It wasn't immediately clear why the police acted.

The global economic crisis is sapping foreign demand for Malaysia's exports of electronic components and mineral resources. The slump threatens to further polarize a country that has depended on growth rates of 5% or more to create enough jobs and wealth to damp ethnic tensions. -wsj.com

Write to James Hookway at james.hookway@awsj.com

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