Malaysian melee

Election: Mahathir seeks to prolong power while economy is up and rival is down.

November 13, 1999

PRIME Minister Mahathir Mohamad has ruled Malaysia so idiosyncratically for 18 years that it is easy to forget he is democratically elected. He remembers.

Dr. Mahathir called a snap election for next month to capitalize on the apparent economic recovery brought by his policy of internal debt in defiance of the International Monetary Fund.

It also comes when his popular opponent and former heir apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, remains a defendant in the longest-running sodomy trial in the history of scandal, and has been sentenced to six years for corruption based on efforts to beat the first rap. Few people in or out of Malaysia believe the proceedings honest.

In going for a quick vote on Nov. 29, Dr. Mahathir is clearly hoping to keep the ineffective opposition divided. If so, he failed. Four parties based on ethnic and religious differences formed an alliance to put up one parliamentary candidate to oppose each one from his ruling coalition.

The election is hardly about who will win, but rather whether Dr. Mahathirs coalition can retain more than the two-thirds of seats needed to amend the constitution. This is not assured.

Much is uncertain. Even Mr. Anwars eligibility to run is in dispute.

It is easy to say that the foxy prime minister, at 73, has finally gone too far and undermined the confidence of investors needed to put Malaysians back to work. But he has proved detractors wrong too many times for any critic to be sure of that.

If the electorate votes on the improving economy, the ruler will be vindicated. If it votes on the fairness of the trial and beating of Mr. Anwar, an upset is in store.

Either way, it is their call. In Malaysia, a certain amount of democracy prevails.

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